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The Question of Trade

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HUSKISSON William - Autograph Letter Signed 1829 objecting to American trade policiesTrade is top of the headlines these days in the U.K.  It has always been a priority here. Britain, more than most other countries - the United States may be the closest - has always been concerned about trade throughout its history.  

What can history teach us about the subject? Quite a lot, one would hope, although I sometimes fear that sometimes the worst bits of history can repeat themselves with depressing consequences.

Go back to the 1820s. The Napoleonic Wars were over, Europe was settling down - well, bar the odd revolution or two - and trade should have been flourishing, especially after satisfactory treaties with many European powers, including France. William Huskisson, who served as President of the Board of Trade for the first part of the decade, should have been a happy man.  But there was a problem. Some countries imposed duties which he considered unfair to British goods. One of those countries was the United States. The two countries engaged in tit-for-tat measures which did nothing but harm the economic well-being of both countries. Huskisson didn't mince his words, complaining of "refined trickery and mean evasions" and accusing John Quincy Adams of "cant and spleen". Somehow, this is not the image I had of John Quincy Adams.

Oddly enough, twenty years earlier, in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars, certainly a bitter enough conflict, governments found ways round the problem.  Napoleon issued the Berlin Decree, forbidding any country within his sphere of influence from trading with Britain (he obviously knew just how to hurt the British). Britain then blockaded France and its allies. All fair enough, one might think, in times of war, but also very limiting. The answer came with special licences which permitted the import of certain goods considered particularly important, as can be seen in the examples of such licences signed by George III elsewhere on this website. Timber, important for shipbuilding, was one of these goods. Wine was another. Obviously, what constituted important had to include materials required for the war ... and sustenance for the upper classes. A certain amount of smuggled no doubt served to fill in the gaps.

The Peace of Amiens in 1802-03 not only brought a lull in the fighting, but also brought a great, and very welcome, cultural exchange in Franco-British relations. The British flocked to France to see the latest in art, fashion and enjoy the cultural life of Paris; the French traveled to Britain, relishing the chance to exchange ideas with the writers and thinkers of Britain. When I visited the Fan Museum in Greenwich (a small, and delightful, museum which I highly recommend), one of my favourite exhibits dated from precisely this brief period. Each segment of the fan had a useful phrase in English on one side, translated into French on the other - a very useful accessory for visitors whose French, or English, had become rusty through lack of use.

I'll leave you with poor William Huskisson, fulminating against the Americans. He is now known primarily for one fact - he was the first victim of a railway accident, hit and killed by George Stephenson's Rocket in 1830, on the day of the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway.

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