Published by EH.NET (October 2010)

Andrew Hamilton, Trade and Empire in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008. vii + 168 pp. $70 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-84718-837-0.

Reviewed by for EH.NET by John C. Coombs, Department of History, Hampden-Sydney College.

Readers of Andrew Hamilton?s Trade and Empire in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World are going to find something quite different than the broad-ranging, and perhaps even comparative study that the book?s title suggests.? What Hamilton offers instead is a relatively short, accessible, and focused examination of new ideas about political economy, particularly concerning the subject of free trade, that circulated among English and Scottish (and to a lesser extent French) intellectuals in the latter decades of the eighteenth century, as well as the failed attempts — undertaken by British prime minister Lord Shelburne and his personal secretary Benjamin Vaughan on the one hand, and U.S. president John Adams on the other — to translate those ideas into policy during the years following the American Revolution.?

After an introduction in which Hamilton describes his interpretive approach and its grounding in the works of J.G.A. Pocock, Bernard Bailyn, and Felix Gilbert, the book?s argument progresses along two threads.? The first is a sort of primer on key elements of free-trade ideology — from ideas about the proper role of the state in the economy and the genealogy of ?laissez faire,? through the problem of trade imbalances between states at differing levels of economic development, to the belief that unfettered commerce could bring an end to conflict and encourage amity among nations. The second thread has an almost biographical character, as Hamilton sketches the backgrounds of Shelburne and Vaughan and their connections with various economic theorists and religious nonconformists, as well as the ties Vaughan had developed with the American diplomats negotiating the 1783 Treaty of Paris, particularly Benjamin Franklin. The two tracks come together in a penultimate chapter discussing Vaughan?s 1788 treatise New and Old Principles of Trade, which is followed by a brief conclusion in which Hamilton analyses how restrictive British trade laws prompted the Adams administration to abandon its free trade position and adopt a more protectionist stance.?

Interweaving these two threads, Hamilton contends that Shelburne sought to apply Enlightenment notions of political economy at the peace negotiations in Paris, which he hoped would lead to either a reformed empire tied together by commerce rather than territorial dominion or, failing that, a mutually beneficial relationship between Britain and an independent America based on free trade.? Hamilton elucidates this connection between theory and policy quite well, and his arguments for the importance of Vaughan?s contributions, both as a thinker and as a vital intermediary during the Paris talks, are also compelling and persuasive. But the British government issued an Order in Council prohibiting the United States from trading with the West Indian colonies and Parliament?s dissatisfaction with the peace treaty forced Shelburne to resign as Prime Minister, thus begging the question of why the policy he and Vaughan wanted and worked for was ultimately rejected. If Britain?s protectionism brought an end to the ?liberal moment? in American foreign policy, as Hamilton asserts, what caused British officials to pursue the course they did in the first place?
Hamilton all but ignores this question, including no discussion of Parliament?s deliberations over the peace treaty or the arguments put forward by Shelburne?s political opponents.? Similarly, although he notes that Vaughan unsuccessfully fought to have the Order in Council rescinded as a member of the Committee of West India Merchants and Planters, he does not explain what this organization did or examine the reasoning behind the government?s response.? Was it simply that a majority of the men in power were just too lacking in vision and too wedded to established conceptions of empire to see the potential benefits of embracing free trade? Because of Hamilton?s silence, the reader can only guess. To be fair, in the introduction Hamilton sets for himself the task of revealing how new theories of political economy were practically applied in the pursuit of a political settlement to the problems confronting the British Empire in the late eighteenth century, and he does a solid job of meeting that objective.? Yet by declining to more fully describe the intellectual and political resistance to policy grounded in the ?new principles? espoused by theorists such as Adam Smith and Vaughan, he does not provide the reader with any real sense of the debate over trade and empire in the period, and the result is a book that is less satisfying than it otherwise might have been.
Still, Trade and Empire has much to recommend it.? Although it is difficult to say how helpful experts in the history of political economy will find the book given its heavy reliance on secondary scholarship that is likely well-known to specialists, graduate students who are less steeped in the literature will doubtlessly find Hamilton?s concise summary of key concepts and syntheses of disparate works to be quite helpful and thought provoking.? At a time when issues relating to free trade are constantly in the news, the book would be an excellent addition to any history or economics class focusing on the subject of political economy, and could potentially add an interesting angle to courses on the American Revolution.? Unfortunately, its rather steep price renders adopting it for undergraduate teaching a rather problematic proposition.

John C. Coombs, Associate Professor of History at Hampden-Sydney College, is co-editor, with Douglas Bradburn, of Early Modern Virginia: Reconsidering the Old Dominion and author of The Rise of Virginia Slavery, both of which are forthcoming with the University of Virginia Press.

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