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Henry George on a “free trade America” as the real city set on a hill (1886)

The American free trade advocate Henry George (1839-1897) thought the best way to spread the idea of liberty was not the use of “steelplated” naval vessels or “death-dealing air ships” but the removal of all “impediments to trade and travel”:

In throwing open our ports to the commerce of the world we shall far better secure their safety than by fortifying them with all the “protected” plates that our steel ring could make. For not merely would free trade give us again that mastery of the ocean which protection has deprived us of, and stimulate the productive power in which real fighting strength lies; but while steel-clad forts could afford no defense against the dynamite-dropping balloons and death-dealing air ships which will be the next product of destructive invention, free trade would prevent their ever being sent against us. The spirit of protectionism, which is the real thing that it is sought to defend by steelplating, is that of national enmity and strife. The spirit of free trade is that of fraternity and peace. …

And a republic wherein the free-trade principle was thus carried to its conclusion, wherein the equal and unalienable rights of men were thus acknowledged, would indeed be as a city set on a hill.

In throwing open our ports to the commerce of the world we shall far better secure their safety than by fortifying them with all the “protected” plates that our steel ring could make. For not merely would free trade give us again that mastery of the ocean which protection has deprived us of, and stimulate the productive power in which real fighting strength lies; but while steel-clad forts could afford no defense against the dynamite-dropping balloons and death-dealing air ships which will be the next product of destructive invention, free trade would prevent their ever being sent against us. The spirit of protectionism, which is the real thing that it is sought to defend by steelplating, is that of national enmity and strife. The spirit of free trade is that of fraternity and peace.

A nobler career is open to the American Republic than the servile imitation of European follies and vices. Instead of following in what is mean and low, she may lead toward what is grand and high. This league of sovereign states, settling their differences by a common tribunal and opposing no impediments to trade and travel, has in it possibilities of giving to the world a more than Roman peace.

What are the real, substantial advantages of this Union of ours? Are they not summed up in the absolute freedom of trade which it secures, and the community of interests that grows out of this freedom. If our states were fighting each other with hostile tariffs, and a citizen could not cross a state boundary line without having his baggage searched, or a book printed in New York could not be sent across the river to [353] Jersey City without being held in the post-office until duty was paid, how long would our Union last, or what would it be worth? The true benefits of our Union, the true basis of the inter-state peace it secures, is that it has prevented the establishment of state tariffs and given us free trade over the better part of a continent.

We may “extend the area of freedom” whenever we choose to—whenever we apply to our intercourse with other nations the same principle that we apply to intercourse between our states. We may annex Canada to all intents and purposes whenever we throw down the tariff wall we have built around ourselves. We need not ask for any reciprocity; if we abolish our custom houses and call off our baggage searchers and Bible confiscators, Canada would not and could not maintain hers. This would make the two countries practically one. Whether the Canadians chose to maintain a separate Parliament and pay a British lordling for keeping up a mock court at Rideau Hall, need not in the slightest concern us. The intimate relations that would come of unrestricted commerce would soon obliterate the boundary line; and mutual interest and mutual convenience would speedily induce the extension over both countries of the same general laws and institutions.

And so would it be with our kindred over the sea. With the abolition of our custom houses and the opening of our ports to the free entry of all good things, the trade between the British Islands and the United States would become so immense, the intercourse so intimate, that we should become one people, and would inevitably so conform currency, and postal system and general [354] laws that Englishman and American would feel themselves as much citizens of a common country as do New Yorker and Californian. Three thousand miles of water are no more of an impediment to this than are three thousand miles of land. And with relations so close, ties of blood and language would assert their power, and mutual interest, general convenience and fraternal feeling might soon lead to a pact, which, in the words of our own, would unite all the English speaking peoples in a league “to establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty.”

Thus would free trade unite what a century ago protectionism severed, and in a federation of the nations of English speech—the world-tongue of the future—take the first step to a federation of mankind.

And upon our relations with all other nations our repudiation of protection would have a similar tendency. The sending of delegations to ask the trade of our sister republics of Spanish America avails nothing so long as we maintain a tariff which repels their trade. We have but to open our ports to draw their trade to us and avail ourselves of all their natural advantages. And more potent than anything else would be the moral influence of our action. The spectacle of a continental republic such as ours, really putting her faith in the principle of freedom, would revolutionize the civilized world.

For, as I have shown, that violation of natural rights which imposes tariff duties is inseparably linked with that violation of natural rights which compels the masses to pay tribute for the privilege of living. The one [355] cannot be abolished without the other. And a republic wherein the free-trade principle was thus carried to its conclusion, wherein the equal and unalienable rights of men were thus acknowledged, would indeed be as a city set on a hill.

About this Quotation:

Henry George had a dream of America as “a city set on a hill”. But unlike many others who saw this as a religious or political ideal, George saw it as coming about as the result of absolute free trade where there would be “no impediments to trade or travel” either within a state like the US or between nation states like Canada and the US. To those who still hankered after invading and occupying British Canada in revenge for the ignominious defeat in the War of 1812 George argued that the best way to “annex” Canada (or any other country in the sights of the expansionists) was for the Americans to “throw down the tariff wall” between them, to “abolish our custom houses and call off our baggage searchers and Bible confiscators”, and allow “unrestricted commerce … (to) obliterate the boundary line” between the two countries. Unrestricted free trade would lead as a first step to “a federation of the nations of English speech” which would gradually develop the same set of “general laws and institutions” as their peoples went about their peaceful business. The next step in this evolution, he thought, would be “our sister republics of Spanish America” and then ultimately “a federation of mankind” under the joint banner of free trade. If peaceful and unlimited free trade could achieve this goal, what use then for “steel-clad forts, … dynamite-dropping balloons and death-dealing air ships”?

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