Victor Bulmer-Thomas, “Freedom to Trade, Free Trade and Laissez-Faire: Latin American Approaches to Economic Liberalism in the Nineteenth Century”.

ISA welcomed a distinguished guest to conclude our Liberalism in the Americas 2011-2012 lecture series, on 6 June 2012: Professor Victor Bulmer-Thomas, currently a Visiting Professorial Fellow at ISA, delivered a fascinating lecture on “Freedom to Trade, Free Trade and Laissez-Faire: Latin American Approaches to Economic Liberalism in the Nineteenth Century.” A video recording of the lecture and ensuing discussion is available to view on our youtube channel, and the full text of Professor Bulmer-Thomas’s article can be downloaded from the Liberalism in the Americas Collection in SAS-Space, our institutional repository. We thank the Economic History Society and the Society for Latin American Studies for sponsoring this lecture, which also acted as a plenary for our workshop on Economic Liberalism in the Americas that took place earlier in the day.

Bulmer-Thomas’s lecture gave a broad-ranging overview and interpretation of Latin American approaches to international trade in the long nineteenth-century. He argued that “unrestricted free trade was seen as a distant goal by all but the most ideologically committed liberals and economic policy focused on much more limited objectives”. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, the key objective was “freedom to trade” with any international partner, as opposed to the mercantilist system of the Spanish and Portuguese empires that restricted the number of ports open to trade, excluded the participation of foreign shipping, restricted intra-colonial trade, and granted royal trading monopolies. Between the 1770s and the 1820s, the colonial governments opened more ports to international trade, granted permission for colonial ports to trade with neutral ships, and lost the ability to enforce imperial monopolies. After independence, the newly independent states, as well as the remaining Spanish colonies of Cuba and Puerto Rico, operated under the “freedom to trade” principle, but stopped short of “free trade”, since commercial concessions were often extracted by trading partners, and tariffs and export duties were often high on the Latin American side of the exchange.

By the mid-to-late nineteenth century, however, a form of “free trade”, where partner trading countries ceased to enforce discrimatory policies on Latin American goods, had become the norm. Bulmer-Thomas explained that in the aftermath of independence, when the need for international recognition and international debts were high, important trading partners, including Great Britain, France,and Portugal, were able to extract special trade privileges from Latin American countries. But their ability to extract such concessions diminished as the nineteenth century progressed, especially as the international weight of the United States increased and affected the direction of trade policy. Again, this stopped short of being “laissez-faire”, since both Latin American countries and many of their trading partners continued to make considerable use of tariffs. Indeed many of the newly independent countries in Latin America raised tariffs from the levels that had operated while they were part of the Portuguese and Spanish empires: the disruption to economic infrastructure and fiscal systems caused by the independence wars meant that taxes on trade were often a vital source of revenue. Alejandra Irigoin’s paper in the Economic Liberalism in the Americas workshop that preceded Bulmer-Thomas’s lecture further suggested that many countries within Latin America had to rely on trade-based taxes because attempts to shift to a fiscal system based on direct taxation in the 1820s had failed.

Bulmer-Thomas concluded his lecture by considering other aspects of economic liberalism that our previous workshop had also considered, especially regarding the development – or not – of factor markets in labour, land and capital. In these areas, there was a degree of debate regarding the preferable level of state involvement in shaping land, labour, and capital markets as the best means of creating economic growth and development, although these debates did not always neatly fall along liberal and non-liberal lines. Bulmer-Thomas then answered a range of questions on the contradictions within economic liberalism; the liberal Vs illiberal nature of tariffs and contraband trading; the role of internal barriers to trade within federal states; the relationship between coerced labour and market forces; and the importance of commodities to Latin American economies.

You can listen to Bulmer-Thomas’s thoughts on these issues, as well as the lecture itself, on our youtube channel, and you can download the text of his talk in our Liberalism in the Americas SAS-Space collection. Please also join the discussion in the comments section below!

Economic Liberalism: Workshop

Our series of workshops that have been exploring major historiographical themes in the comparative history of liberalism in the Americas came to a close on 6 June 2012, with a vibrant session on Economic Liberalism in the Americas in Senate House, London. We were extremely pleased to have the support of the Economic History Society and the Society for Latin American Studies in holding this event, and the associated public lecture by Prof. Victor Bulmer-Thomas also on 6 June 2012.

Written working papers were submitted by four paper presenters in advance of the workshop for registered participants to read, and a fifth paper was briefly introduced during the workshop, in order to devote maximum possible time to discussion. Our commentators, Prof. Rosemary Thorp and Prof. Alan Knight, both from St Antony’s College, Oxford, opened discussion in the two panels with some critical comments and feedback on the papers, and some broader, thought-provoking observations on the theme of economic liberalism. In particular, the papers and discussion focused on the often problematic relationship between economic liberalism and political liberalism and made some comparative observations about the impact of liberalism and neo-liberalism in the Americas. The programme can be downloaded here.

Much of the discussion also centred on clarifying exactly what economic liberalism means in different policy arenas, from banking and monetary policies, to principles of taxation, property laws, internal and external trading systems, and labour issues. In reaching some conclusions, areas for further research were also identified, including the relationship between fiscal policy, credit networks, and land speculation in the early American republic and how liberal economic policy affected the relationship of states and markets with respect to urban centres, urban consumers, urban property and urban planning across the region. More generally, it was noted that future studies of liberalism should endeavour to bring economic and political developments and perspectives together, as well as employing a geographically sensitive analysis.

For further details, please download the full conference report, and consult some of the working papers presented during the workshop in our Liberalism in the Americas collection in SAS-space.

Matthew Butler, “Revolutionary Religion? Liberalism and Catholicism in Post-Revolutionary Mexico.”

Dr Matthew Butler (University of Texas, Austin) continued our lecture series on 18 April 2012, with a fascinating examination of radical religious movements in Mexico during the period of political, economic and socio-cultural upheaval after the Mexican Revolution in the early twentieth century. Having joined our group for the earlier workshop on Liberalism and Religion: Secularisation and the Public Sphere in the Americas, Butler discussed his new work on the schismatic religious movement led by Father Pérez in the 1920s and its relationship to the transformed place of liberalism within Mexican political cultures in the post-revolutionary era. You can watch the full lecture and ensuing discussion session on our youtube channel.

Connecting his lecture to our previous discussions in the workshop, Butler began by explaining that constitutional Catholicism and Church reform movements had long been an integral part of Mexican religious identity at both elite and popular levels of society. Although there had been considerable conflict between more radical liberal governments and the Catholic Church in the nineteenth century – over issues of Church property and clerical fueros in particular – many liberal administrations had adopted more co-operative relationships with the Church and the majority of the population continued to identify strongly with Catholicism in many areas, and the revolutionary governments’ policies towards the Church provoked a violent reaction from Church supporters, known as the Cristero War or the Cristiada (1926-29).

The “schismatic” movement that Butler explored in most of his lecture represented a combined agenda of popular Catholicism, agrarianism, popular liberalism, and anti-clericalism and was centred in the rural regions of Guerrero, Puebla, Chiapas, Veracruz and Tlaxcala during the mid to late 1920s. The anti-clerical aspect of the schismatic body, known as the Mexican Catholic and Apostolic Church, represented not a rejection of religion but a reformulation, being primarily directed against Ultramontanism, seeking to eradicate corruption and abuse of hierarchical authority from the Mexican Church, and creating a more interactive, mutually beneficial relationship between the clergy and their flock.

Not only was the schismatic church an attempt to build a more patriotic and abuse-free church to serve the Mexican people and nation, but the movement also acted to sacralise some aspects of the Revolutionary reform agenda – particularly regarding agrarian reform and social engineering projects seeking to improve the living conditions of the Mexican peasantry and to structure the moral universe of the ordinary population around ideals of citizenship, virtue and patriotism. Butler emphasised that the schismatic church had vibrant popular support in local communities, which strongly shaped how the schismatic church operated at local level. This was partly due to the schismatic body being able to step into the vacuum left by the suspension of official Catholic Church services from 1926, when the episcopate effectively announced a clerical strike in protest against Plutarco Elías Calles’ policies against the Church. But the support for the schismatic church also emanated from the synergy with particular local concerns and with the broader agrarian, community autonomy, and popular religion agendas that were widespread in the areas where the schism took hold. Later in the lecture, Butler explored in considerable detail how this schism impacted at different local levels, comparatively examining communities to the north of Mexico City in the valleys of Texcoco and Teotihuacan and rural areas in the Sierra Norte del Puebla and around Veracruz to the south.

You can listen to the full recording of Butler’s lecture on our youtube channel - and please leave us your thoughts in the comments section below.

Prof. Linda Colley, “Liberties and Empires: Writing Constitutions in the Atlantic World, 1776-1848″

ISA welcomed a distinguished guest to take part in our Liberalism in the Americas lecture series on 21 March 2012: Shelby M. C. Davis 1958 Professor of History at Princeton University, Linda Colley. A recording of the lecture, entitled “Liberties and Empires: Writing Constitutions in the Atlantic World, 1776-1848″ is available to watch on our youtube channel. There was a big turnout for Colley’s lecture, which was generously co-sponsored by the British Library’s Eccles Centre for American Studies and by the University of London’s John Coffin Memorial Fund.

Colley’s lecture was impressive in its geographic breadth and its depth of analysis of the swift expansion of constitutional practice throughout the Atlantic World, and even beyond. The decades following the American Revolution were marked by an increasingly self-conscious mobilisation of written texts and print culture to inform, display, extend and justify political power around the world, in what Colley referred to as “public and political writing-ness”. One of the core tenets of her argument was to show the multiple contexts within which written constitutions were produced, and the multiple ends to which they were put. In particular, the lecture emphasised the centrality of written constitutions to imperialist projects – American, French, and British – as well as to nation-states; to monarchist systems – in Haiti, Portugal, and Brazil for instance – as well as to republics. With these points, Colley’s lecture echoed conclusions that were made during one of our previous workshops on Liberalism, Monarchy and Empire: Ambiguous Relationships, and the argument put forth by Max Edling in the workshop on Liberal Constitutionalism in the Americas, that the federal constitution of the United States had been designed to strengthen the authority and reach of the central government throughout the union, particularly regarding the settlement of intra-union disputes and the management of international relations.

This perspective was also used to challenge the assumption that British politics was largely unaffected by the wave of constitutionalism and “writing-ness”. On the contrary, Colley pointed to figures such as John Cartwright and Jeremy Bentham who participated in an internationalist dialogue of constitutionalism, penning constitutional proposals for different parts of Europe and Latin America. Much of this activity was underpinned by the assumption that Anglo-Saxons were better equipped to design governing systems and political structures than other peoples, an idea that simultaneously justified and reinforced imperial expansionism on both sides of the Atlantic.Therefore, Colley noted, constitutions, as ”engines of improvement and freedom, sometimes merged… with the ambition to manage, control and even invade”.

Colley also identified several fascinating issues that would make productive avenues for future research: in particular, her research has uncovered an extensive body of “amateur” constitution writing across the globe (including a radical figure in New South Wales, who composed a blueprint for a democratic, republican, and imperial Australia in the 1850s), which could yield numerous insights into the transnational circulation of political ideas, local political cultures, print cultures, and alternative visions for political organisation that were on the agenda but never codified into law. Another fruitful avenue Colley suggested was investigating the broader print and literary culture – both elite and popular – of the era, and how constitutions compared to other types of texts designed to inform, reform, control, and demarcate boundaries. This is a particularly important subject given the self-conscious awareness that many constitution-makers of the era had for the “potential of language and texts to mould and to manage”.

Colley’s lecture was followed by an energetic question and answer session. Within this discussion Colley emphasised that, along with many of their contemporaries, British politicians – even as they disavowed constitutionalism proper – recognised that written constitutions were a vital means of legitimising particular political systems, or even particular administrations. This helped to make Colley’s lecture a fitting conclusion to the discussion held earlier in the day at the Liberal Constitutionalism workshop, regarding the central importance of establishing or consolidating legitimacy as a motivation for writing constitutions – a detailed report of this discussion can be downloaded here.

Watch the recording of Linda Colley’s fascinating lecture once more, and please give us your thoughts in the comments section below!

Roderick Barman, “The Enigma of Liberalism in Imperial Brazil, 1822-1889.”

Our lecture series, which has to date featured Professors Greg Grandin, Klaus Gallo and David Rock, continued on 10 February 2012 with “The Enigma of Liberalism in Imperial Brazil, 1822-1889″ by Roderick Barman, Emeritus Professor of the University of British Columbia. The endurance of monarchy as a political system made Brazil quite unique among the newly independent nations of Latin America in the 19th century, but Barman’s lecture demonstrated that liberalism had a major impact on Brazil during this period and that, in the wider global context, this co-existence of liberalism and monarchy was not so unusual.

Barman began by outlining three essential components of liberalism–the constitution, the nation-state, and the citizen–thus making an important contribution to our ongoing discussions about how we should categorise and define “liberalism” in this research project. Central to this part of Barman’s presentation was the identification not only of the appeal of constitutions, nation-states, and citizens (and thus what made liberalism appealing to various interest groups), but also of the limitations and weaknesses that these fundamental elements of liberalism brought to its adopters.

It was in the tension between the appealing aspects and the limitations of liberalism that Barman located liberalism’s potential synergy with monarchy as a means of reform without jeopardising political order and social stability, not only in Brazil but also in various European states, such as Norway, France, the Netherlands, and Belgium. The transfer of the Portuguese court to Rio de Janeiro after Napolean’s invasion of the Iberian Peninsula was the key factor that led to the development and spread of liberal ideas and goals in Brazil, which were in turn very important in the establishment of an independent Brazil in 1822 and in the design of the 1824 constitution. A liberal-driven experiment in confederate government followed the abdication of Brazil’s first constitutional monarch, Pedro I, in 1831 and, although this experiment largely failed, liberalism remained an important referrent during the reign of Pedro II, who styled himself as a “Citizen King”.

Pedro II’s reign saw the emergence of two broad political parties – Conservative and Liberal – in the 1840s, and he successfully managed political rivalries to lead a stable political order. This was also made possible by the shared support for slavery that the Conservative and Liberal political factions had, and by a period of economic growth in the mid 19th century. In concluding his lecture, Barman identified factors explaining the decline of the constitutional monarchy: a rise in nationalist sentiment not dependent on the person of the monarch; an expansion of state bureaucracy in response to economic development; uncertainty regarding a successor to Pedro II; the abolition movement; and the development of new political philosophies, such as Spencerian Social Darwinism and Positivism, that appealed to the political classes of Brazil.

In a lively questions and discussion period, various members of the audience called on Barman to dwell on the parallels and divergences between Brazil and other parts of the Americas in the 1800s, which further connected his lecture to our ongoing discussions about the comparative impact of liberalism in the Americas. In particular, Alejandra Irigoin raised the issue of the military resources available in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil’s then capital), that other Latin American states lacked in the same period, perhaps aiding the relative stability of the centralist state. Guy Thomson also remarked on the differences between the political systems that liberalism helped to foster in Mexico and Spain, as compared to Brazil: while Barman’s lecture pointed to the position of Brazil’s emperor as the “fourth power”, Thomson outlined how in Mexico and Spain, the municipality–a more local authority–became a “fourth power” of sorts. Tony McCulloch pointed to a further area of intriguing comparison: between Brazil and Canada in their experiences of liberalism and monarchical government. Barman, having lived in Canada for many years, agreed that there were interesting parallels between the two regions, in particular with respect to how, in both countries, patriotism was tied to a synergy of loyalties to a locality or region and to the monarch.

Watch a recording of the lecture and discussion here

Download the text of Barman’s presentation here.