Sunday, May 28, 2017

The ruinous history of free trade, Part 1

November 6, 1860. Abraham Lincoln has been made President by a 39.8 percent plurality of votes. The Democratic Party had split in two over the issue of slavery expansion during its national convention in Charleston, South Carolina in late April. Almost exactly one month after the election, Robert Barnwell Rhett, publisher of the Charleston Mercury and the most open proponent of secession, walked along Meeting Street, almost to the southern tip of the peninsula Charleston is built on. He stopped at a house and knocked on the door. Now that secession was being planned, Rhett had come to talk with the Consul of Great Britain, Robert Bunch, about the “commercial prospects” of the South.

Once the two men had exchanged carefully courteous greetings, Rhett got right to the point.
Rhett asked Bunch how he thought Britain would act if ships arrived in its ports that came from the seceding states but did not have clearances from the customs collectors of the Federal government—assuming, of course, the Federal government didn’t object to their sailing and wasn’t going to “coerce the Seceders back into the Union.”
Rhett had represented South Carolina in the U.S. Senate in the early 1850s, so the British consul addressed Rhett with the honorific. “Is that what you believe will happen, Senator?” Bunch asked. Rhett replied:
“The course most likely to be pursued by the President is that he will not acknowledge the right of a State to secede as an abstract question, but practically, he will not interfere with it for doing so…. Foreign nations would be at perfect liberty to consider secession as an accomplished fact and to use their own discretion as to recognizing or making treaties with the new state.”
Bunch answered that he could not provide an official reply, since her majesty’s government had not yet provided him any instructions on the matter, and in fact had probably not even considered the issue yet. Bunch then slyly provoked Rhett by noting that most foreign governments, including his own, would take their guidance from whatever position the President and the Congress of the United States settled on.

This pushed Rhett to go directly to the heart of the matter, according to Bunch’s biographer:
[Rhett] expected the cottons states to form a Confederacy within the next sixty days, and he wanted to make it clear that “the wishes and hopes of the Southern states centered in England”; that they would prefer an alliance with her to any other power; that they would be their best customer; that free trade would form an integral portion of this scheme of government, with import duties of nominal amount and “direct communication by steam between the Southern and British ports.”
This conversation was communicated by Bunch to his superiors in the Foreign Office in London, and are part of the original documents used and quoted by Bunch’s biographer, Christopher Dickey, in his book, Our Man in Charleston: Britain's Secret Agent in the Civil War South (2015, Broadway Books / Penguin Random House, New York, NY, pages 179-184).

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