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Published by EH.NET (January 2004)

Perry Gauci, The Politics of Trade: The Overseas Merchant in State and Society, 1660-1720. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. xvi + 302 pp. $90 (cloth), ISBN: 0-19-924193-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Christian J. Koot, Hagley Fellow, University of Delaware.

The Politics of Trade: The Overseas Merchant in State and Society, 1660-1720, is a study of the lives, business, and politics of 850 overseas merchants operating from London between the Restoration and the end of the War of Spanish Succession. Gauci, who teaches Modern History at Lincoln College, Oxford, investigates how these traders responded to the challenges of the period and argues that they used innovative techniques to influence politics and thus the economic and social “development of the early modern British state” (p. 2). Following the lead of Robert Ashton and Robert Brenner, Gauci studies the place of the overseas trader in Augustan politics and society not from the viewpoint of established political power, but by looking outward from the traders’ perspective [1]. The study, while focused on a relatively small group of merchants, blends new research with an impressive command of the secondary literature and consistently considers the argument’s implications for historiographic debates in English economic and political history.

Gauci finds that the overseas mercantile community, a group distinguished by function rather than class or wealth, became “important intermediaries of social and political change” (p. 273). Merchants were uniquely placed to make commercial concerns a priority in national affairs because their business success demanded making connections and remaining innovative and adaptable. Aiming to close the gap between studies of the mercantile influence on politics, which look at specific traders and companies, and those that focus on how commercial exigencies affected political ideology, the author divides his work into two sections. In the first Gauci provides a thorough overview of London’s overseas merchants. The heart of his analysis, however, lies in a second more narrative section that gauges the “public” impact of London’s overseas mercantile community (p. 13).

Using the tools of the social historian — tax lists, marriage records, wills, and business records — Gauci finds that London’s overseas merchants were a diverse group. While they were relatively prosperous there was significant variation and traders’ fortunes fluctuated over the course of their lives. The sample, which contains two women who unfortunately are not discussed, lived scattered through the City’s eastern wards close to important infrastructure — the Exchange, warehouses, and port facilities. This pattern of settlement and the City itself are crucial in Gauci’s formulation because the landscape placed merchants alongside those contacts which enabled their commercial success and eventual political influence. Though it is tempting to break these groups along geographic or commodity-specific lines, the author resists this urge and thus is able to find that merchants with varying interests formed formal and informal associations. Furthermore, they came together at particular moments, promoting convoys in wartime for example, to speak as a community. Their unity was often temporary, but later in the century overseas traders increasingly realized “collective action” was important as the expanding volume and scope of trade, especially the competitive African and the American trades, required “commercial advantage from the various national authorities that ruled international trade,” (p. 110).

Though Gauci’s exhaustive discussion of the social context of London’s overseas mercantile community is quite long, dense, and is not always fully integrated into his main thesis, in the second section the patient reader is rewarded. What seems a typical elucidation of the connections merchants needed to excel at trade turns out to be far from typical for the seventeenth century. Rather, Gauci turns this argument on its head to argue that it was precisely the ability of London merchants to exploit contacts outside of their community that enabled them to penetrate the political sphere and advance their commercial success

In this section Gauci expands the scope of his study to evaluate how the merchant gained influence on the national stage, where aristocratic not mercantile codes determined socio-political standing. As Gauci shows, merchants adapted to this new arena in two important ways. First, they endeavored to reform “the ways in which trade was managed, represented, and promoted” through an evolving merchant press (p. 193). While most efforts, such as their attacks on some monopolies, failed, merchants promoted themselves as professionals with particular skills that could advance the patriotic aims of England and the interests of the fiscal-military state. Though unable to completely shed their reputation as self-interested businessmen, traders used the mercantile press to bring discussions of commerce into the wider public discourse. Second, as Parliament gradually became the center of commercial policy after the Glorious Revolution, merchants actively exploited this new opportunity, doubling their numbers in Parliament and increasing their petitioning. Overcoming their inexperience, the merchants’ commitment to the Commons eventually enabled them to shape public policy. Gauci presents the French Commerce Bill of 1713, a piece of legislation resulting from commercial negotiations with the French to remove trade barriers, as the test of mercantile influence. In the long debate over the bill the mercantile community successfully opposed it by pushing commercial, rather than religious or diplomatic concerns foremost in discussion of the state’s interests.

Much of The Politics of Trade deals specifically with important issues for English historians of the period, such as the debate about whether the landed and the mercantile were socially and politically compatible in the seventeenth century — Gauci finds that they were. But to look at the work only from that perspective would be a mistake. For historians of the English empire, or the Atlantic world in general, Gauci’s work stimulates important questions. His single-minded focus on overseas traders and omission of foreign correspondents leads the student of colonial America to wonder how the concerns of colonial merchants affected London’s mercantile politics. Moreover, what would a similar analysis reveal about the ways colonial merchants influenced local and English politics? Did they exploit the same political opportunities at the same time in the same way? Similarly, one wonders if merchants in countries without a shift to representative control of commercial policy were able to voice their concerns as they faced similar commercial obstacles. Gauci’s ability to raise such questions is a testament to the work’s success, and should encourage specialists in other areas, especially those interested more broadly in the intersection between mercantile politics and the state, to read the work.

[1] Robert Ashton, The City and the Court, 1603-43 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979); and Robert Brenner, Merchants and Revolution (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993).

Christian J. Koot, a Hagley Fellow at the University of Delaware, is currently writing his dissertation. The work will examine the role of inter-imperial trade in the development of the Atlantic economy by highlighting the role of Dutch traders in New York City and the ports of the English Leeward Islands during the seventeenth century.