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Lord Liverpool And the United States
Spokesman for a rising industrialism, this prime minister bid for free trade with the United States and helped to create something quite different
October 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 6
But if we accept the idea that Canning was a grandparent of “splendid isolation,” then this aspect of Anglo-American relations becomes somewhat misleading. We have to turn to quite another kind of event: Castlereagh’s refusal, in 1819, to make an issue out of the execution of Arbuthnot and Ambrister, two British citizens, by General Jackson in Spanish Florida; the pressure which London exerted upon Madrid in 1821, in order to bring about a ratification of the great Transcontinental Treaty between the United States and Spain; the extremely pro-American Trade Act of 1822; even Canning’s language ("the daughter and the mother stand alone against the world,” etc., etc.) when for a brief while, in 1823, he was seeking American support against the Holy Allies. These are all evidences of English friendship; all were overtures; all were rejected.
If there is a portent in all this, and I think there is, it will be discovered in the economic drift of Castlereagh’s and Canning’s government; and specifically in the aims of that somewhat otiose figure in English history, Robert Banks Jenkinson, second Earl of Liverpool, prime minister of England from 1812 to 1827.
It would be a thankless task to write an apologia for Lord Liverpool. He looms in English history like some dolmen, some irremovable relic of a forgotten religion, some crude archaic arrangement which would be all the cruder with a coat of whitewash, some monument to a peculiar kind of impenetrability—the hard but drowsy impenetrability of the High Tory mind.
And so, in some ways and to some extent, he was. He had no respect for civil liberties and no notions whatsoever concerning the rights of man. He confessed himself an enemy to “general reform.” He had that extreme insensitivity to the human misery of industrialism for which we are still paying. A witty Frenchman said of him that if he had been present at the Creation, he would have cried in dismay, “Mon Dieu, conservons le chaos.”
There was, however, another side to him, which English history is just beginning to recognize. He may have answered the sorest grievances with repression, but not the grievances of manufacturers; he may have been deaf to human pleas, but not to the pleas of chambers of commerce. He was a prophet, acutely aware of his country’s industrial future and uttering, with great caution but with obvious conviction, the new language of enlightened self-interest. He was, in short, that unpalatable but portentous mixture—a High Tory as regards all human relations, an early Liberal as regards the release of industrial energy.
An amiable, fidgety, uninspiring man, he was an obscure but powerful manipulator of legislative strings. As prime minister during the War of 1812, he discovered that access to free markets was of more consequence than a monopoly of the carrying trade; he seems never to have forgotten what he had learned, or to have forgotten that it was America that taught him.
He had patience, he was persevering, he was obstinate. He listened to middle class reformers; he smuggled the great Huskisson into his Cabinet as president of the Board of Trade; and, against everyone’s wishes, over the agonized protests of George IV, he insisted on making Canning his foreign secretary. While he and Huskisson moved cautiously towards laissez faire in the domestic field, Canning rushed at it in the field of foreign relations. The three of them were the committee of public safety of the Industrial Revolution, hacking away at tariff schedules, mercantilist concepts, European absolutists, all obstacles to the free flow of industrial energy.
In 1820, Lord Liverpool made a speech which gives us the essential connection between English overture and American rejection. He told the House of Lords that the recent falling-off in British exports should be attributed “principally if not exclusively” to distress in the United States. He declared that America’s immense territory and increasing population offered the best prospect for British manufactures.
“My lords,” he said, “everybody who wishes prosperity to England, must wish prosperity to America.” He added that the United States, because it was not hampered with old and ingrown commercial regulations, was the only nation which could “act unreservedly on the principle of unrestricted trade.” Clearly the United States, with its immense territory and increasing population, would create no irreparable divisions so long as it never resorted to protective tariffs; obviously American democracy itself had no dangers so long as it consented to become the handmaid of British industrialism.