Wednesday, August 11, 2021

John Shovlin's "Trading with the Enemy"

John Shovlin is associate professor of history at New York University and the author of The Bordeaux–Dublin Letters, 1757 and The Political Economy of Virtue.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Trading with the Enemy: Britain, France, and the 18th-Century Quest for a Peaceful World Order, and reported the following:
From page 99:
[In 1711, British Prime Minister Robert Harley] hoped that, with the intercession of Louis XIV, Philip V [of Spain] would grant the South Sea Company the right to trade with the viceroyalty of Peru from Pacific bases. What the minister’s journalistic proxy, Daniel Defoe, envisioned was ‘Quiet possession . . . of Four Ports . . . in the Kingdoms of Chili and Peru, with sufficient Extent of the Country round, and Freedom of Commerce to all the Spanish Dominions, South of the Equinox on the Western Coast of America.’ Together with ‘a Free Trade to and from Old Spain’, he prom­ised, this would guarantee the future flourishing of British commerce.

As first conceived, the South Sea Company was to carry on a balancing trade against French rivals, already well-established in the Pacific. The Tory ministry envisioned sharing commercial access with France – an idea the Tory MP and writer Matthew Prior floated when he travelled to Fontainebleau at the behest of Harley in 1711 to discuss British peace demands with Colbert de Torcy. When the French minister rejected initial British demands, claiming that if Britain alone received Pacific trading enclaves this would overturn the balance of commercial power and make them ‘masters of the whole trade of the world’, Prior insisted that such bases were rather intended to produce ‘a more equal distribution of traffic’. Britain would not object if Louis XIV sought equivalent enclaves to harbour French trade. Tory publicity surrounding the South Sea Company took for granted that the French would remain commercial competitors in the Pacific – and indeed this must have seemed a reasonable assumption in 1711. In this vision of a balancing trade, the Dutch were to be excluded; as we have seen, Tories regarded them as far more dangerous commercial rivals than the French.
Page 99 speaks to a key idea of the book: that officials turned to free trade in the eighteenth century as a way to create a more peaceful international order because, when designed to distribute the profits of trade, free trade tended also to preserve a balance of power. This was not the familiar liberal conception of free trade: there was no talk of self-regulating markets, comparative advantage, or trade naturally fostering peace. Rather, it was a question of preventing any one state from monopolizing a key commercial resource, like American silver, by making sure that multiple powers retained trade access. Conversely, free trade posed a threat to peace when it was granted to some at the expense of others. This page and the surrounding ones tell the story of efforts at the end of the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1713) to find a free trade model for Spain’s empire in America that the major commercial powers could accept—one that would prevent either France or Britain from enjoying a monopoly.

What the page doesn’t indicate is the full period the book covers—the 1690s to the 1780s—or its geographical scope, with chapters on India, the Caribbean, and North America as sites of Anglo-French conflict and peacemaking. Moreover, free trade was only one of several devices to which officials looked to ease international tensions over trade. The book also explores partition schemes, proposals to neutralize important trading zones outside Europe, and schemes for imperial collaboration.

The book addresses perennial questions about the stability of geopolitics in a capitalist order, suggesting that eighteenth-century commercial capitalism not only spurred conflict, as historians have long known, but fostered efforts to contain war and pacify world politics.
Visit John Shovlin's website.

--Marshal Zeringue