Lord Liverpool And the United States


Liverpool was no friend to democracy and nationalism. He spoke in terms of self-interest; like Huskisson and Canning, he could only hope that it would prove to be enlightened. In this spirit, England wooed America with the Trade Act of 1822; in this spirit she broke away from the Concert of Europe; in this spirit, years later, when England was becoming the workshop of the world, Palmerston supported liberalism abroad and squashed it at home. Industrial free trade, or enlightened self-interest in its most persuasive and energetic form, created a world market and broke down the isolation of the most remote peoples, but it was free markets that mattered, not free men. A curious prevision of world trade seems to arise from Lord Liverpool’s speech.

It made little impression on the House of Lords, and there is no evidence that any American so much as heard of it; it was a soliloquy on friendship. American administrations, in any case, were already slipping down an inclined plane which led to the economic nationalism of President John Quincy Adams.

As secretary of state and as President, Adams fought the encroachments and cajoleries of British industrialism in any form and on any field; he fought them with threats; he fought them with tariffs; and he went on fighting until he fought himself out of the White House. His whole plan of a national economy—careful stewardship of the public lands, protection of industry, national banking, federal subsidies for roads and canals—seemed to conjure up a vision of the kind of America which Lord Liverpool, in 1820, had so piously hoped would never emerge.

It conjures up another vision, too—one which Adams himself would have thought a nightmare—a vision of government aid to business in the Sixties and Seventies with thumping subsidies and huge free slices of the public domain and the corrupt building of high tariff walls, a vision of the emergence of the great trusts in the 1880’s. All this did indeed help to reduce British laissez faire to a condition of splendid isolation. A free trade based on Canning’s concept of enlightened self-interest, “each nation for itself, and God for us all,” is, of course, headed there anyway.

We are left with Lord Liverpool’s little bridge, “whoever wishes prosperity to England must wish prosperity to America.” He was thinking of a state of “open trade,” with England making some large concessions, and the United States offering a permanent, expanding and unprotected market.

Lord Liverpool meant well; but he is, in fact, the one figure who seems to unify Anglo-American rivalries in those days in terms of some shadowy battle between early protectionists and early free traders. It is he who reminds us that a study of Canning’s policy in Latin America leads on and away to the larger problem of British industrialism in the Nineteenth Century, and of how it was checked, and why.

Lord Liverpool’s bridge was swept away by the portent, rather than the fact, of the Tariff of 1828, an event which he did not live to see. Yet his words about prosperity have in them more of the quality of survival than Canning’s empty boast about calling the New World into existence to redress the balance of the Old. If we could abstract the element of self-interest from them, they would become “Whoever wishes prosperity in his part of the world, must wish prosperity in every part.”

This would have disgusted Lord Liverpool. He was one of the most realistic and successful heralds of industrial laissez faire: but he seems only to emphasize the unhappy truism that the world may painfully correct the errors of its statesmen, but has yet to find a way of defending itself against their successes.