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

Henry George

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.

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”?