As regular readers know, I\’m generally a believer that international trade can be and often is a win-win situation, with benefits to the economies of all of the countries involved. But supporters of free trade have certainly had own lapses into overstated purple prose. One of my favorite purple prose statements along these lines was made by John Bowring in 1841: \”Jesus Christ is Free Trade, and Free Trade is Jesus Christ.\”
What was the context for this remarkable claim? David Todd gives a useful overview of Bohring\’s career in \”John Bowring and the Global Dissemination of Free Trade,\” published in the Historical Journal (2008: 51:2, pp. 373-397, available via JSTOR). Here\’s an overview from the introduction of Todd\’s piece (footnotes omitted):
[H]ow free ideas spread in practice around the globe in the mid-nineteenth century has received relatively little attention.
The extraordinary career of John Bowring (1792-1872), author, editor, and Board of Trade official, may illustrate several key aspects of that process of global dissemination. Bowring was an indefatigable and cosmopolitan propagator of free trade. In the aftermath of the 1830 Revolution in France, he toured dozens of cities there in the hope of making free trade \’vibrate\’ and spread like a \’fire\’ in public opinion. He later participated in the foundation of the Anti-Corn Law League in Manchester and propounded free trade policies in Bern, Rome, Berlin, Brussels, Cairo, Batavia (Jakarta), Bangkok, and Shanghai. In 1856, as British plenipotentiary in the Far East, he ordered the bombardment of Canton to enforce the rights of foreign merchants to enter the city. The decision triggered the Arrow War (1856-60), eventually resulting in Ch\’ing China\’s full opening to Western trade.
Bowring\’s endeavours demonstrate that the global dissemination of free trade was an eminently practical process that required deliberate agency and material support from institutions. His extraordinary mobility, his capacity to harangue foreign merchants and journalists, and the generous salaries paid to him by the British government were important factors–possibly more important than the intellectual impact of international trade theory–in the spread of liberal ideas about trade. He collected information or proselytized in more than thirty countries on three continents, and authored or edited more than forty works, consisting primarily of translations, reports on foreign trade policies, travel accounts, and pamphlets concerned with the international circulation of commodities, ideas, and individuals. As befits such a global career, his papers are scattered among more than fifteen archive depositories in Europe and North America. …
The global reach of Bowring\’s labours also suggests a greater continuity than is usually recognized between the rise of liberal ideas about trade in Europe and their forceful implementation in the extra-European world. Dissemination entailed reformulation in accordance with political and cultural contexts. In Western Europe, Bowring used a politically liberal rhetoric to woo public opinion. In less liberal countries such as Germany and Egypt, he sought to persuade absolute rulers and civil servants of the benefits of freer international communications. And in East Asia, he embraced \’gunboat diplomacy\’ to obtain the lifting of restrictions on foreign trade. \’Qui veut la fin veut les moyens\’, Bowring quipped to his adversaries, in Europe as well as in Asia. He resorted to different means in different circumstances. Yet his goal was everywhere the removal of international trade barriers. …
Despite the flexibility of his methods, Bowring pursued the same goal from Bordeaux to Canton: the lifting of restrictions on the free movement of commodities, ideas, and travellers. This goal became increasingly intertwined, in Bowring\’s mind, with the spread of British \’influence\’ – a word he used to describe his exertions in France and Egypt as well as China. Support for free trade lobbies on the European Continent and the opening of East Asian markets by gunboats may be construed as two facets of the same policy. The dissemination of free trade should be considered not only as a practical, but also as a global and continuous process, changing in intensity according to local military, political, and cultural conditions.
But although Bowring was a fervent advocate for free trade, readers during this Christmas season will be relieved to hear that he was not actually blasphemous on the subject. R.K. Webb describes Bowring\’s then-unconventional Unitarian beliefs in \”John Bowring and Unitarianism,\” published in Utilitas (1992, 4:1, pp. 43-79). Webb writes:
For more than fifty years, John Bowring was active in Unitarian affairs. Indeed, the totality of Bowring\’s efforts give him some claim to have been the most prominent of Unitarian laymen. No one was more assiduous in attending Unitarian meetings, in taking the chair, in opening bazaars, in giving speeches on Unitarian occasions, whenever he was in Britain. …
Truth and liberty were watchwords, even code words, for nineteenth- century Unitarians. Truth, which embraced the emerging discoveries of science as well as critical findings about the Bible and sacred history, also meant religious truth, which those Unitarians who thought deeply about it saw as progressive revelation, as it might emerge from experience and the findings of science and scholarship. …
The liberty to which Unitarians were devoted was in the first instance the religious liberty for which they and their Dissenting forerunners came increasingly to contend in the eighteenth century. Going beyond the mere toleration written into law, they argued for a true marketplace of ideas, in religion as in everything else, an ideal to which the Established Church was a continuing reproach, the worse for the number of its adherents who were in substantial doctrinal agreement with the liberals but demeaned themselves by subscribing to what the rational Dissenters saw as outmoded and constricting formularies. The passion for liberty nurtured by the ambition of religious equality carried over into every form of social and political agitation: antislavery, free trade, freedom of contract, parliamentary reform.
Webb and Bowring seem to agree that Bowring was clearly a Unitarian first and a Benthamite free trade second–but that he didn\’t see any contradiction between the two. Webb quotes a report from the Bolton Chronicle, June 19, 1841:
Referring to the parable … of the Good Samaritan, [Bowring] compared the Anti-corn law league . . . to that benevolent wayfarer. But not content with this alleged comparison, he proceeded, in the warmth of his Unitarian zeal, to pronounce the following words,-\’Jesus Christ is Free Trade, and Free Trade is Jesus Christ.\’ The awful and impious declaration was loudly cheered by a batch of Unitarian heathens upon the stage, who manifestly delighted in the opportunity of applauding such audacious irreverence.
Webb adds: \”In reply, Bowring denied that he had spoken irreverently. Born of religious parents and religiously educated, he said, \’if in the question of free trade he felt deeply interested, it was because he believed it to be intimately associated with religious truth and the exercise of religious principles …\’\” (quotation from a follow-up story in the Bolton Chronicle, June 26, 1841).
As David Todd notes in his essay: \”The spread of free trade within early nineteenth-century British society, for example, owed a great deal to the religious reinterpretation of market laws by \’evangelical\’ Christians.\” I find myself wondering if it\’s possible for a 21st century people to insert themselves into a mindset in which putting free trade and Christianity side-by-side makes a kind of humorous sense, rather than just sounding like an over-the-top non-sequitur.