John Chodes is the communications director for the Libertarian Party of New York City.
In 1846 England became the first major industrial country to end its centuries-old protectionist policies against imports from other nations. This was a revolutionary move. Free trade was much more than an economic policy. It reflected the philosophy of justice and limited government. Breaking down barriers to trade helped break down the barriers of class and the obstacles to civil liberty.
For 85 years free trade reigned as England’s national policy, influencing all the commercial nations of the world. Most of the credit for this radical change has gone to Richard Cobden, John Bright, and their Anti-Corn Law League based in Manchester. They spent nearly a decade of zealous effort smashing those outdated trade obstacles.
Yet there was a lesser-known advocate of free trade who made an impact: Dr. Andrew Ure (1778–1857), a lonely pioneer who promoted the great advantages of international free trade and its corollary, unregulated internal industry. Ure was a medical doctor and a chemist. He was also a passionate advocate of the factory system and its new steam-driven machines. This led him to become an important inventor. Textile mills needed a constant temperature to produce uniform goods, but this was difficult to achieve, and so the quality of products fluctuated. Ure patented the thermostat, which automatically regulated the temperature and greatly advanced the standardization of textiles.
In the 1830s Ure wrote two remarkable books, The Philosophy of Manufactures (1835) and The Cotton Manufacture of Great Britain (1836). His books drew an inescapable conclusion: by repealing protectionism, England would become vastly wealthier, benefiting all her citizens and bettering relations with her European neighbors and the United States. In contrast, protectionism caused antagonisms that often led to war. Aimed at Britain’s legislators, the books were filled with charts and data on the industrial productivity of nations, wages, profits, and more. Also included were blueprints of the astonishing new machines that were creating this wealth. Ure’s purpose was to make it as easy as possible for Parliament to deregulate commerce.
“Foreign competition should always be permitted, to urge on, like an impelling spring, the movements of our own industry,” Ure wrote. “Free trade consists in the entire absence of restrictions of any kind on the export or import of merchandise.”
Protectionism, on the other hand, was “necessarily very complex, being entangled with numberless springs and counterchecks.” Encouraging one industry, like wool, he believed, put the cotton, silk, and linen manufacturers at a competitive disadvantage. This forced each branch to fight one another in Parliament for government subsidies, regulatory aid, or higher tariffs. Since human intelligence could never reconcile these opposing interests by government control, justice required that trade be left free until that “liberty be proved dangerous to others.”
Free trade benefited working people dramatically by lowering the cost of consumer products. Ure gave a graphic example. When the tariff on printed calicos was repealed, it caused a tremendous celebration in Manchester, the center of the industrial revolution. The two delegates who helped push the repeal bill through Parliament were greeted like heroes with a seven-mile long procession and an inscribed silver cup. “Repeal enables the consumer to get the articles from thirty to forty percent cheaper and females of the lower ranks to clothe themselves in handsome, comfortable dresses,” Ure wrote. Repeal also freed business from the espionage of tax collectors who previously could be bribed to steal trade secrets.
Arkwright and Columbus: Voluntary Aid vs. State Grants
Ure greatly admired Richard Arkwright, one of the major early innovators of the industrial revolution. His “water frame” spinning jenny, patented in 1769, was a big step toward the mass production of textiles. Ure saw Arkwright as a revolutionary, another Isaac Newton.
To demonstrate the advantages of the free market over government subsidy, Ure pointed to Arkwright’s struggle to invent the water frame and Christopher Columbus’s begging for funds from the Spanish throne. “It required a man of Napoleonic nerve and ambition,” Ure wrote, to overcome the irregular work habits of the early mill hands and the “prejudice, passion and envy” of his rivals. Ure added that “with the cooperation of two or three spirited citizens, he [Arkwright] advanced with unfaltering energy toward his object, living in affluence and dying in honor.” Arkwright, concluded Ure, “has forever affixed his name to a great era in the annals of mankind.” Columbus, on the other hand, wasted years pleading with kings before obtaining only paltry equipment for his heroic expedition, Ure said. The explorer’s compensation was “disgrace, poverty and prison.”
Before Ure’s time, most European countries had erected high trade barriers. In the seventeenth century, France’s King Louis XIV wished to aggrandize commerce through royal patronage. His minister, Jean Baptiste Colbert, carried out the policy. Ure described the intent of their self-destructive folly: “Colbert’s avowed purpose was to render France as much mistress of the civilized world in manufacturing as he thought her to be in military glory.” To make France independent of other nations, Colbert subsidized any adventurer who would advance his scheme. Industry flourished first, then withered and died, unable to be sustained by the artificial channels scooped out by the government.
To show the degree of havoc that Colbert generated, Ure produced statistics revealing that France, in the half century between 1787 and 1830, had nearly doubled its population but its gross national product remained static.
Ure saw that the misguided policy of protection created a natural antidote: smuggling. “Governments may, indeed, enact absurd laws, but they cannot compel mankind to obey them,” he wrote. “The smuggler becomes the corrector of faulty legislation, and the vindicator of human rights.”
Switzerland, the only other free-trade country in Europe, verified this principle by reaping the benefits through a black-market policy by which her people received goods cheaply and then “smuggled them with advantage into the territories of her neighbors.”
Protectionists Falsely Charge Business
In the nineteenth century the factories were condemned as “satanic mills.” The outside world was informed that the workers labored under dangerous, inhuman conditions and contracted fatal diseases. Mostly this is false. It was the propaganda of threatened aristocrats, who used any tactic, fair or foul, to thwart free-trade legislation. Ure focused on the reason for their falsehoods when he said that the hatred of factories proceeded “more from the envy of one ancient and powerful order of the Commonwealth [the aristocrats] toward another suddenly grown into political importance [the industrialists].”
The famous Sadler Commission was the main source of the fabrications. It conducted hearings in London in 1832 and produced 600 pages of damning testimony against the cotton-mill owners. The data was used by Parliament to enact the first major industrial regulations, which later led to the nationalization of some British industries.
Ure was one of the few who had the courage and insight to see the consequences of the Sadler Commission and publicly state that the charges were lies. “Of 89 witnesses, only 3 came from Manchester, although it is the largest manufacturing town . . . . [O]ne was a convicted rapist. [Another] would not take the oath.” When the regulatory bills were debated in Parliament, Ure called them “worthy of the darkest ages.”
Countering the Sadler Commission’s charge of widespread disease among mill employees, Ure reproduced a letter by E. Carbutt, the physician to the Royal Manchester Infirmary, which stated that most of the doctors who testified before the commission had neither been inside a mill nor examined a factory worker. The doctors attributed scrofula (tuberculosis of the lymph nodes) and cholera epidemics to industrial labor. But this was untrue. Because of the controlled environment of the factories, Carbutt wrote, “the mill workers enjoyed a remarkable immunity.”
Misleading Charges of Child-Labor Abuse
The Sadler Commission concentrated its attention on child labor, knowing that the charge of abuse by “heartless capitalists” would provoke such a public outrage that restrictive legislation would be easier to pass. The commission alleged that children were beaten by the factory supervisors or owners as they worked at the “Slubbing Billy,” a machine used in wool mills to reduce rolls of wool into a continuous cord. The children were called “pieceners” because they pieced together the porous rolls. Ure pointed out that the pieceners did not work for the factories but rather for independent contractors called “slubbers,” or overseers. Moreover, the slubbers were often the fathers of the pieceners. Later, the pieceners’ work was automated, eliminating the need for the children and hence the potential for abuse.
The commission claimed that the owners employed mostly children in the “dangerous, disease-ridden” factories; again the charge was an attempt to promote legislation to control private enterprise. And once again, Ure shattered the charge. Using data from an impartial study of 43 major cotton mills in Manchester, he demonstrated that children constituted an insignificant portion of the work force. Only 1.7 percent of mill workers were between 9 and 10 years old; 3.2 percent were 10 to 12. Together this represented a small percent of all those employed. As automation increased, these numbers declined further.
Andrew Ure performed a great service for his countrymen. Though his accomplishments have been widely ignored, it should be noted that one German exile in nineteenth-century London found Ure’s work utterly distasteful. None other than Karl Marx chided Ure for his “apotheosis of large-scale industry.”
- Andrew Ure, The Philosophy of Manufactures (London: Charles Knight, 1835), p. 446.
- Andrew Ure, The Cotton Manufacture of Great Britain (Charles Knight, 1836), p. xvi.
- Ibid., p. 250.
- The Philosophy of Manufactures, p. 459.
- Ibid., p. 449.
- The Cotton Manufacture of Great Britain, p. xxi.
- The Philosophy of Manufactures, p. 6.
- Ibid., pp. 291, 297.
- Quoted in ibid., p. 376.
- Ibid., p. 179.
- Ibid., p. 307.