Saturday, February 5, 2022

Dael A. Norwood's "Trading Freedom"

Dael A. Norwood is an assistant professor of history at the University of Delaware.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Trading Freedom: How Trade with China Defined Early America, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Trading Freedom introduces the reader to Asa Whitney, a former China trader who went on to briefly become antebellum America’s most famous promoter of transcontinental railroads. It also shares some of the details of his proposed scheme.

From page 99 of Trading Freedom:
Whitney’s journey toward his plan for a transcontinental railroad began when he set sail from New York City’s Pike Slip wharf on June 18, 1842. Twice widowed, his finances had collapsed in the lingering downturn following the Panic of 1837; he shipped out to recover his fortunes as well as his spirits. His destination was the rich port of Canton, where the chaos of the recent Anglo-Chinese conflict, the First Opium War, was creating new commercial opportunities for enterprising foreign merchants. A pious man but not an unassuming one—his physical resemblance to Napoleon was noted—Whitney hoped the voyage would improve his circumstances and perhaps lead to something grander. “It certainly is a great tryal at my time of life to recommence the work, too in a strange foreign Land,” he confided to his diary, but he hoped “above all things that I may yet be enabled to do some good to mankind & in some small degree make amends for the abuse of all God’s providences to me.”

He arrived in Canton on November 24, 1842, a few months after the Treaty of Nanking had confirmed the consequences of Britain’s successful invasion and opened new Chinese markets to Western traders. Amid the continuing commercial and political upheaval that followed the war, Whitney spent sixteen months engaged in business. During that time he conceived the plan whose scope and “vast importance” he hoped would rival the deeds of his doppelgänger and hero, Bonaparte. Returning to New York on September 9, 1844, with his finances restored, Whitney set about writing up his ideas and preparing to memorialize Congress about his railroad project.

The core details of Whitney’s plan remained largely the same from his first congressional proposal in 1845 to the end of his major public efforts in 1852. His plan’s outline was simple: Whitney proposed that the federal government set aside a sixty-mile-wide swath of public land, thirty miles on either side of his proposed road, running from the shores of Lake Michigan to the mouth of the Columbia River in the Oregon Territory. After building ten miles of track as a proof of concept, he would then sell five-mile-long blocks of this land grant to finance the rest of the road’s construction—all under government oversight. He estimated that the road would cost a little over $68 million, and to raise those funds he would need to sell seventy-eight million acres of what he termed “waste.” Crucially, he denied any pecuniary interest: the land would be sold only for construction costs, and the road’s tolls would go only to maintenance. If the road failed, all the property would revert to government ownership. “I have but one motive,” he explained, “and that is, to see this great work successfully accomplished.”
The Page 99 Test works pretty well for Trading Freedom. The book’s core argument is that Americans’ trade with China defined US politics and statecraft – and Whitney’s push for a transcontinental railroad is a great example of how this worked in practice. His trading experience in Canton convinced him that trade with China could be a powerful means to national wealth and greatness, if properly harnessed. Whitney imagined he could capture the China trade for the US by building a railroad across North America, thereby shifting global trading routes. His vision became popular because he framed his “Pacific railroad” as a solution to urgent “domestic” political problems: it would help implement Americans’ “manifest destiny” for a continental empire, and also leverage global commerce to solve the persistent problems of union within that empire – resolving tensions between Eastern states and Western territories, and diffusing the conflict over slavery. The argument Whitney and other promoters made was that the bonds of union should be rails of iron, bought, laid down, and worn smooth by China’s endless commerce. And while Whitney’s specific scheme didn’t win Congress’s final approval, the argument he developed later carried the day; and in 1869, the road he imagined became a reality.

That said, Whitney’s story is unique – and does not represent the full range of ways Sino-American commerce shaped US politics. For the most part, Trading Freedom’s other chapters detail much more direct and concrete intersections between the practice of trade and the nation’s political developments – why the problems of revolutionary sovereignty led the founding generation to incentivize direct trade with China in the nation’s first tariff, for example, or how panicked enslavers’ fears of Chinese migration contributed to the formation of a durable anti-Chinese xenophobic bias in American law.

But as a taste of how trade with China produced a global perspective that profoundly shaped Americans’ understanding of their place in the world, and their relationship to each other? You could do a lot worse than Asa Whitney on page 99.
Visit Dael A. Norwood's website.

--Marshal Zeringue