On Liberalism, Political Correctness, and Illegal Immigration

Last week I wrote a post about criticism by some left-wing liberals of Tim Kaine. My post elicited a series of comments from Peter Schaeffer. I responded to his first comment in the comment section, and he has followed up with some further comments, which raise a number of important issues, partly historical and partly philosophical. While his comments are in some respects insightful, I think that are also very misguided. But it is certainly the case that many of the positions he takes are rather widely held, including by some well-known public figures, so I think that they are worth responding to. So even though some of what Peter and I disagree about are fairly obscure matters of British and American history, I think that it is worth taking the time to respond to most of Peter’s comments.

Peter begins by challenging the main point of my previous post, which was that the attacks on Tim Kaine for being insufficiently liberal, owing to Kaine’s support for free trade, were historically anomalous and ignorant, liberalism having originated in Britain as a political party and political ideology in the course of the mid-19th century struggle over free trade, in which liberals were the advocates for free trade. Peter takes issue with a comment I made in reply to Lars Christensen’s comment on my post. I wrote:

The idea that support for free trade means that you are not a liberal was just too hilarious for me to ignore.

To which Peter responded:

It’s not hilarious at all. It’s reasonable and serious. Modern liberalism is not British 19th century liberalism and doesn’t claim to be. Modern liberalism rejects the ideas (laissez-faire capitalism) and the consequences (extreme inequality) that British 19th century liberalism enthusiastically supported.

They may share the same word, they are not the same thing.

I am fully aware that modern liberalism and 19th century liberalism are not the same thing; much of my post was devoted to explaining why modern American liberalism moved away from 19th century liberalism. But the differences don’t mean that they are totally unrelated and have nothing in common. John Stuart Mill, unmentioned by Peter, was an exemplar of 19th century liberalism, and he surely was not indifferent to the extreme inequality resulting from pure laissez-faire capitalism. Nor did I deny that it is possible to be a liberal and oppose free trade. All I said was that it is a stretch to say that if you support free trade, you can’t be a liberal, which seemed to be the message of the “liberal” opponents of Tim Kaine.

Peter continued:

The nation of Columbia provides a good example. The Columbian Liberal Party was originally a liberal (using the old British sense of the word) party and is now a liberal party (in the modern sense of the word).

What point Peter is trying to make by citing the not very relevant or interesting (WADR) example of the obviously dysfunctional Columbian Liberal Party escapes me. And Peter goes on to show exactly how dysfunctional the party is by providing the following bit of historical trivia.

To put this in perspective, in 1982 Pablo Escobar (yes, that Pablo Escobar) was elected as an alternate member of the Chamber of Representatives of Colombia as a CLP candidate. Presumably, 19th century British liberals would not have welcomed Pablo as one of their candidates.

To which all I can say is: OMG! Perhaps, Peter would like to identify for us which liberals, other than the dysfunctional Columbian ones, he thinks would have welcomed such a one Pablo as a candidate.

From his confusing musings about the squalid state of Columbian liberalism, Peter moves on to a bitter attack on 19th century British Liberalism, accusing the Liberals of having been supportive of slavery and the South in the Civil War. He cites, as he has previously, the remarkable statement by a 19th-century British politician and diplomat, Charles Bowring (whose obscurity can be inferred his absence in the index of Morely’s three volume biography of Gladstone): “Jesus Christ is Free Trade and Free Trade is Jesus Christ.”

To show that this weird formulation was somehow typical of British Liberals, Peter cites Lord Palmerston, the Liberal Prime Minister during the American Civil War, who complained to Charles Francis Adams (US ambassador to Britain) about the Morril tariff, from which Peter infers that tariffs were more hateful to the British Liberals than was slavery. Peter also cites Gladstone as a Liberal supporter of secession. In fact, Palmerston and all the British Liberals were opposed to slavery. However, Palmerston believed that the national interests of Britain might be better served (Britain First?) if the Confederate States were to secede from the Union. It is true that Gladstone made a speech in 1862 in which he suggested that the early military successes of the Confederacy meant that the South had succeeded in creating a new nation, and that it might be best to acknowledge that reality. Gladstone later regretted that this speech, calling the speech “an undoubted error, the most singular and palpable, I may add the least excusable of them all. In the autumn of that year [1862] . . . I declared in the heat of the American struggle that Jefferson Davis had made a nation, that is to say, that the division of the American Republic by the establishment of a Southern or secession state was an accomplished fact. Strange to say, this declaration, most unwarrantable to be made by a minister of the crown with no authority other than his own, was not due to any feeling of partisanship for the South or hostility to the North.” J. Morely, Life of Gladstone, vol. 2, p. 81).

In addition, both Richard Cobden and John Bright, the two leaders of the Anti-Corn Law League, and the most fervent British supporters of free trade, were both equally fervent supporters of the Union. And I just found this 2013 article by Bill Cash, author of a recent biography of Bright showing that Lincoln and Bright were united by common ideals and deep mutual admiration.

For those who have seen the brilliant film Lincoln with Daniel Day-Lewis, you may have noticed in the scenes set within the study that there was a photograph in the left hand corner of the mantelpiece of a great British statesman, John Bright. I have that exact photograph in my personal collection, as described in my book, John Bright: Statesman, Orator, Agitator (IB Tauris, 2011). Bright was the leading advocate in Britain against slavery throughout the American Civil War and who was highly esteemed by Abraham Lincoln for his advocacy in the run up to the Emancipation Proclamation – which had its 150th anniversary on 1 January, 2013.

During the course of the American Civil War, Bright had devoted all his energies to protecting his beloved American democracy – a key influence on his own campaigns for parliamentary reform – centring his arguments on the moral repugnance of slavery. In this, he had the support of the workers at his own cotton mill in Rochdale who, even when impoverished during the cotton famine caused by the war, refused to accept Southern slave-grown cotton. Yet, the relationship between Bright and Lincoln was not merely a real influence on Lincoln himself but on the history of the civil war and the relationship between Britain and America from that time on and still today.

When Steven Spielberg and Day-Lewis were interviewed on television about the film, both of them revealed that what had fascinated them, as much as everything else, was the mind of Abraham Lincoln. And what the photograph in the film represented was the extent to which Lincoln himself paid his own tribute to Bright.

It was testimony to Bright’s influence that Schuyler Colfax (who, as those who have watched the film will have seen for themselves voted for the constitutional amendment in 1865) and Henry Janney – both of whom were confidants of Lincoln – wrote to Bright after the assassination telling him that his portrait and only his portrait was in President Lincoln’s reception room. Lincoln had sent two portraits of himself to Bright, and of the two portraits hanging in Lincoln’s own office, one was of Bright.

Vice-President Schuyler Colfax, then Speaker of the House of Representatives, wrote to Bright in 1866, requesting a likeness of Bright, saying, “Your face is quite familiar to me already, as your portrait hung up in President Lincoln’s Reception room, and often, in the many evenings I spent with him there, he referred to you with sincere regard & even affection. Every loyal man & woman in the land knows you, knows you and esteems you. But your correspondence with Senator Sumner, whom I often meet (& we often talk about you, you may be assured) has informed you of all this.”

A letter from another of the confidants of Lincoln, Henry Janney (dated 24 April, 1865, immediately after the assassination), wrote to Bright relating how he “told the President I had a letter from thee and he requested me to bring it up and let him see it, saying, ‘I love to read the letters of Mr Bright.’ I complied, when he read carefully every word, then remarked to those around him, ‘my friend has show me a letter from Mr Bright. I believe he is the only British statesman who has been unfaltering in his confidence in our ultimate success – look there.’ I stepped up to the wall and seeing a familiar face read beneath it John Bright MP. It was the only portrait in the room.”

It is perhaps, then, no surprise that a long-standing testimonial from Bright calling for Lincoln’s re-election was found in Lincoln’s pocket when they were emptied immediately after his assassination. Bright was known to Lincoln’s intimate friends as greatly influencing the president’s mind.

In the midst of his anti-liberal tirade, Peter suddenly dives into a discussion of political correctness, possibly in reply something I wrote in response to his disparagement of the support that modern liberals lend to political correctness. Here’s what I said:

Political correctness can be problematic, but that doesn’t justify abusive speech in the public arena. Yelling “political correctness” in response to criticism of indecent and abusive rhetoric and incitement is just as reprehensible as suppressing legitimate debate under the guise of “political correctness.” Both sides of this idiotic debate are just sloganeering.

I thought that was a pretty clear statement of opposition to attempts to shut down debate in the name of political correctness; I was just pointing out that abusive and indecent speech cannot be justified or exempted from appropriate expressions of disapproval by the bare assertion that the speaker was merely objecting to political correctness. But Peter doesn’t see it that way:

It is naïve to view Political Correctness (PC) as some sort of antidote to “abusive speech in the public arena”. PC is a comprehensive system of authoritarian thought control that exists to exclude non-PC ideas from the public arena, no matter how innocently they are expressed and no matter if they are well-supported by facts. Note that PC has been highly successful to date in achieving its goals of censorship, oppression, etc.

Peter seems to imply that I believe that Political Correctness is an antidote to “abusive speech in the public arena,” but what I said was that abusive speech cannot be justified as an antidote to, or protest against, Political Correctness. Big difference – but, apparently, not big enough for Peter to grasp. Peter then goes on to cite the case of Larry Summers, who was subjected to considerable public criticism for his comments at an academic conference about the reasons for the under-representation of women in tenured positions in science and engineering at top universities and research institutions.

However, the pseudo-Stalinist show trial of Larry Summers (roughly derived from Saletan, Parker, Taylor, and others) is one of the best example. Larry Summers’s comments to the NBER conference were a model of legitimate, highly rational, scientific, academic discourse (read them in the original). For daring to mention (part of) what science knows he was pilloried around the world and driven from office. His subsequent recantations and groveling apologies would have made a communist show-trial judge proud.

The first thing to notice about Peter’s comment is his Freudian slip in referring to the “pseudo-Stalinist show trial of Larry Summers” when the Slate article by William Saletan to which Peter refers was titled “The pseudo-feminist show trial of Larry Summers.” And the second thing is that Kathleen Parker’s column about the rescinding of an invitation by the University of California to Summers to deliver a commencement address compared Summers’s treatment to McCarthyism not to Stalinism. I disapprove of how Summers was forced out of his position as President of Harvard, in part owing to his comments on the reasons for the under-representation of women in the sciences and engineering at top universities and research institutions. But to compare Summers’s treatment to Stalinist oppression is so far over the top that one has to wonder about Peter’s grasp on reality.

Certainly it was embarrassing for Summers to be subjected to verbal abuse and unjustified accusations of prejudice against women. He was also compelled to apologize more abjectly for his remarks than the substance of those remarks warranted. I don’t dismiss the possibility that discrimination is one factor in explaining the paucity of tenured female faculty in the sciences and engineering at top universities, and I can see why Summers’s remarks could have been misunderstood to deny that such discrimination is a factor reducing the number of females in those positions. But after being forced out of his position at Harvard – and his remarks about women were only one factor in turning the Harvard faculty against Summers – Summers received a quite lucrative severance package as well as an appointment as the Charles W. Eliot University Professor at Harvard. It was hardly to the credit of the University of California to rescind its invitation to Summers to deliver a commencement speech, but to suggest that such an action rises to the level of McCarthyism, much less Stalinism, is simply laughable.

If you want to know what Stalinism really looks like, read this article in Saturday’s New York Times about the recent show trials of four Chinese human-rights activists who were compelled to read self-denunciations in court after being convicted of subversive activities in promoting human rights and civil society.

BEIJING — Chinese lawyers and rights activists appeared in televised trials throughout this week in what seemed to be a new, more public phase of President Xi Jinping’s campaign to cleanse the country of liberal ideas and activism.

Legal experts and supporters of four defendants denounced the hearings, held on consecutive days in Tianjin, a port city near Beijing, as grotesque show trials. All four men were shown meekly renouncing their activist pasts and urging people to guard against sinister forces threatening the Communist Party, before they were convicted and sentenced.

But for the government, the trials served a broader political purpose.

By airing the abject confessions and accusations of a sweeping, conspiratorial antiparty coalition, Mr. Xi’s administration was “putting civil society in all its forms on trial, and vilifying them as an anti-China plot,” Maya Wang, a researcher on China for Human Rights Watch, said in emailed comments.

I don’t defend what was done to Summers, but the way that Summers was treated pales in comparison to what was done to those four brave Chinese activists. Peter continues:

The issue isn’t “abusive speech in the public arena”, but ideological suppression of anyone who dares to deviate from PC orthodoxy.

To restate the obvious yet again, I condemn the ideological suppression of opinions that deviate from PC orthodoxy. But waving the flag of opposition to PC orthodoxy does not give anyone a free pass to engage in abusive speech in the public arena. Which is exactly what abusive speakers are doing nowadays to evade responsibility for their abuse and their threats. Peter goes on to cite an excellent article by Jonathan Chait chastising liberals for siding with the PC police. And Chait makes the valid point that anti-liberal right-wingers and misguided liberals and leftists are all happy to conflate liberalism with left-wing ideology, ignoring the key difference between liberalism and left-wing ideology, which is that liberalism holds that there are certain neutral principles that take precedence over specific objectives and concrete outcomes. Or stated differently, liberalism stands for the idea that it’s not only the ends that people are trying to achieve that matters, it’s also the means that they use to achieve those ends that matters. Certain means are illegitimate no matter how noble the ends. One might have thought that this would satisfy Peter, but it doesn’t.

However, the issue here go further. Let’s say that PC only objected to “abusive speech in the public arena”. That’s not true (at all). But let’s say it was true. So what? Charlie Hebdo has no right to satirize Islamists? Didn’t Voltaire say “I Disapprove of What You Say, But I Will Defend to the Death Your Right to Say It”? What exactly is “abusive speech”? The church regarded Galileo’s claims as “abusive speech”. Was the church right to suppress Galileo? Today’s “abusive speech” may well be tomorrow’s truth. How can any society hope to find truth without allowing dissenting opinions?

Peter seems unable to grasp even basic distinctions. I can express disapproval of Charlie Hebdo without banning it, or tolerating, much less justifying, terrorist attack against the magazine and its staff. Being against abusive speech does not mean suppressing it; it means that those who practice abusive speech should be just as subject to criticism as is everyone else who ventures to expose his thoughts to public scrutiny. When you express an opinion, both the substance of the opinion and the manner in which you express it are legitimately subject to criticism. Trying to shield yourself from criticism by saying that you are being anti-PC is nothing but a dodge and a scam. And to suggest preposterously that Galileo was imprisoned for abusive speech is just a travesty. Legitimate criticism of the way in which an argument is presented is not the same as suppressing the opinion.

In a further comment, Peter responds to something I wrote in response to Benjamin Cole’s comment. I wrote:

I don’t dismiss the effects of trade on workers as some free traders do, but that doesn’t mean that all free trade does is harm workers. Same for the effects of immigration. Those effects are complex, and they are hard to disentangle. Property zoning is a real problem and I am certainly against criminalization of push-cart vending, just as I am against criminalization of non-legal (“illegal” is a pejorative misnomer, which invidiously connotes criminality as does the term “amnesty” when used in the context of immigration reform) immigration.

Peter wrote:

“Illegal” is a statement of fact. We have immigration laws. If you have violate them, you have done something illegal. Sort of like robbery, assault and battery, and arson. These acts are violations of the law. They are illegal. Stealing a car is illegal. If you steal a car and drive it, you are an illegal driver. If you rob a bank, you are a criminal. Calling car thieves and bank robbers criminals (illegals) isn’t pejorative, it’s simply a statement of fact.

“Illegal” is a statement of fact only insofar as there are statutes that declare immigration not in compliance with the statutorily established procedures for immigration to be illegal. But that doesn’t mean that illegal immigration is no different from robbery, theft, fraud, assault, battery, and arson. Robbery, theft, fraud, assault, battery, and arson are common law offenses. The act of immigration is not in and of itself a criminal, destructive, or anti-social act. Intrinsically destructive and anti-social acts are common law crimes even without a statutorily created offense. Illegal immigration is a crime only because statutes declare it to be such, not because any aspect of immigration is presumptively illegal. So the analogy between immigration and offenses at common law is completely false, without merit, pejorative, and invidious.

The fact that calling illegals, “illegals”, is now deemed to be non-PC (offensive even) is a classic example of how PC is used to censor honest discussion of the issues facing America.

Of course, everyone knows this. If illegals weren’t violating U.S. laws, why would anyone be trying to provide Amnesty for them? Why would any legalization be needed? The fact that the advocates of Amnesty demand “legalization” proves that “illegals”, are in fact illegal.

No, Peter, you are insisting that your narrative is factual and that mine is PC and censorious. So we are having an argument about how to describe the fact that people who cross a certain international border without complying with the procedures established for such crossings to be lawful are subject to punitive consequences for failing to comply with the prescribed procedures. You are simply invoking PC as a way of trying to get the upper hand in this discussion about a given factual situation. But PC is a completely irrelevant red-herring. Stick to the facts. And the fact is that, unlike robbery, theft, etc., immigration, i.e., crossing an international border, is not an offense at common law. Amnesty is your term. It implies that there was an offense, but the only offense was non-compliance with an administrative procedure specified by an arbitrary statute. There was no offense at common law, as you yourself acknowledge below. There is a huge difference between an amnesty for a technical administrative violation and an amnesty for offenses at common law.

Please observe that ”illegal” is not just a generic statement. Illegally entering the U.S. is a Federal crime (see below). Illegally residing in the U.S. (even after legally entering) is a Federal civil offense (deportation is the stated penalty). Of course, documentation fraud, Social Security fraud, identify theft, etc. are all Federal crimes and the vast majority of illegals have violated these laws.

Peter, you confirm that illegally residing in the US is not a criminal offense even under US law. And your further comments about the definition of “immigrant” under US immigration statutes do not change the fact that there is nothing inherently criminal or offensive about illegal immigration, and that the criminal status of illegal immigrants is the result of the administrative system created by US immigration policy, not the offensive nature of the actions of those who enter or remain in the US in violation of those administrative regulations.

I don’t dispute that the US, as a sovereign state, has the right to establish such regulations, but those regulations have no inherent moral content, as do common law offenses. They are purely utilitarian. And any assessment of how those regulations are being implemented, administered or modified should be made strictly on the basis of how the system as a whole contributes to or detracts from the benefit of the people of the US. And as I indicated in my reply to Benjamin’s comment, it is difficult to disentangle the effects that immigrants have on the well-being of current residents and citizens of the US. Platitudes about upholding the rule of law are simply question-begging when, unlike the basic laws of just conduct, the immigration laws in question have no moral content, but are merely instruments for achieving the goals of the current immigration policy of the US.

7 Responses to “On Liberalism, Political Correctness, and Illegal Immigration”


  1. 1 peterschaeffer August 9, 2016 at 11:44 pm

    First, let me thank Mr. Glasner for affording me the opportunity to comment on these topics and for taking the time to formulate an intellectually serious and substantive reply. I would like to think that my comments are also intellectually substantive and serious, though it would be presumptuous for me to assume so.

    It has been my consistent intent to show that the word liberal, as it used to today, has no particular relationship to its 19th century British meaning. The Japanese LDP is not a “liberal” party, though the L is for “Liberal”. The American Democratic party considers itself to be a “liberal” party and does not constrain itself in accordance with the views of 19th century British Liberals (nor should it in my opinion). The Columbian Liberal Party shares the word “Liberal” with a 19th century UK party. It would appear to be quite removed from its namesake 150 years ago (although the Columbian Liberal Party was apparently founded as a classically liberal party).

    As a consequence, it is entirely reasonable for modern “liberals” to embrace what they view as “liberalism” and reject the ideas of 19th century British Liberalism. If one views the modern Democratic party as an essentially DLC entity, dedicated to enhancing the well-being of those who benefit from Globalization, then Kaine’s views on trade are entirely reasonable. If one views the modern Democratic party as a (modern) “liberal” party focused on the well-being of workers, small farmers, trade unionists, the poor, etc. Kaine’s views on trade are questionable at best. Clearly the Democratic party encompasses multiple constituencies (and has for many decades at least).

    The views of J.S. Mill on inequality are interesting, but do not constitute a refutation of my prior claims. First, there is the colloquial expression that “exceptions prove rules”. Of course, that is literally not true. However, exceptions do not alter means, medians, and broad judgements. 19th century British liberals were quite vocal in their support for unconstrained free markets and inequality. J.S. Mill was (at best) only a quite partial exception.

    The “Classical Liberalism” Wikipedia page has a number of useful comments. Quote(s)

    “These beliefs were complemented by a belief that laborers could be best motivated by financial incentive. This led classical liberal politicians at the time to pass the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834, which limited the provision of social assistance, because classical liberals believed in markets as the mechanism that would most efficiently lead to wealth. Adopting Thomas Malthus’s population theory, they saw poor urban conditions as inevitable; they believed population growth would outstrip food production, and they regarded that consequence desirable, because starvation would help limit population growth. They opposed any income or wealth redistribution, which they believed would be dissipated by the lowest orders”

    “Drawing on selected ideas of Adam Smith, classical liberals believed that it is in the common interest that all individuals must be able to secure their own economic self-interest, without government direction. They were critical of the welfare state as interfering in a free market. They criticized labor’s group rights being pursued at the expense of individual rights, while they accepted corporations’ rights being pursued at the expense of inequality of bargaining power noted by Adam Smith.”

    “It was not until emergence of social liberalism that child labor was forbidden, minimum standards of worker safety were introduced, a minimum wage and old age pensions were established, and financial institutions were regulated with the goal of fighting cyclic depressions, monopolies, and cartels. Classical liberals opposed these new laws, which they viewed as an unjust interference of the state. They argued for what they called a “slim state”, limited to the following functions.”

    “Classical liberalism was the dominant political theory in Britain from the early 19th century until the First World War. Its notable victories were the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829, the Reform Act of 1832, and the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. The Anti-Corn Law League brought together a coalition of liberal and radical groups in support of free trade under the leadership of Richard Cobden and John Bright, who opposed militarism and public expenditure. Their policies of low public expenditure and low taxation were adopted by William E. Gladstone when he became chancellor of the exchequer and later prime minister. Classical liberalism was often associated with religious dissent and nonconformism.”

    J.S. Mill’s views were a mixture of classical liberalism and more contemporary (government) interventionism. Several sources make this clear. Quote

    From “The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics – John Stuart Mill”

    “Surprisingly, though, Mill was not a consistent advocate of laissez-faire. His biographer, Alan Ryan, conjectures that Mill did not think of contract and property rights as being part of freedom.”

    From “Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy – John Stuart Mill”

    “On the whole Mill supported the laissez faire economic policies that had been defended by earlier economists such a his father and David Ricardo. His overall concern was here as elsewhere with self-development, and laissez faire policies seemed to provide the scope needed for individual freedom. But on further reflection, moved in this by his wife, he came to the view that personal development required not just the freedom of the economic market but also political freedom, and that this is of little use to an individual who lacks economic security and opportunity”

    From “John Stuart Mil Laissez Faire, Mill Intervention or Socialism”

    “Mill’s eclecticism in economic theory carries over to his views on economic and social policy. His writing is such a strange admixture of opinions that he defies classification as an advocate of laissez faire, of intervention, or even of socialism. Possibly the best way to characterize such a subtle and complex thinker as Mill is to say that in terms of public policy he represents a midpoint between classical liberalism and socialism.”

    Clearly, Mill both embraced the laissez faire economics and inequalities of “Classical Liberalism” and rejected the same. While that makes Mill and interesting 19th century character, he was not the sine qua non of British Liberalism. British liberalism was (then) “Classical Liberalism” and accepted/embraced inequality as the natural condition of mankind (as they saw it).

    It is certainly true that some British Liberals (Bright and Cobden) were pro-Union. The Duke of Argyll (George John Douglas Campbell) was also a notable Liberal supporter of the Union cause.

    However, these individuals are notable as exceptions to the general rule of Liberal support for the Confederacy. Overall, the Liberals supported the Confederacy and took practical actions to aid and abet the Confederacy. I have already noted Gladstone’s (in)famous speech on behalf of the Confederacy (October 7th, 1862 in Newcastle). It is certainly true, the Gladstone regretted his remarks… But not because of his support for the Confederacy.

    His superiors in government (Russel and Palmerston) chastised Gladstone for exceeding his authority in giving his Newcastle speech. That does not mean they actually disagreed with the substance of his remarks.

    Quote from “Great Britain and the Confederate Navy, 1861-1865”

    “However that may be, when he spoke at Newcastle, Gladstone did not reflect the views of Palmerston. (It is necessary to note, however, that on October 12, Palmerston told Russell that Gladstone “was not far wrong in pronouncing by anticipation the National independence of the South.” Quoted in Duberman, Charles Francis Adams, p. 481, note 128, citing Russell Papers, PRO 30/22/22.) Both Russell and Palmerston observed that Gladstone exceeded his powers as a member of the cabinet: on October 17 Palmerston told Russell that the chancellor ought to have kept clear of mentioning fu-ture actions “unless authorized by his colleagues to become … the organ of the Govt. for announcing Decisions come to upon suitable Deliberation… Quoted in Duberman, Charles Francis Adams, p. 481, note 128,”

    As you see, Gladstone’s error was not one of policy, but exceeding his remit to make statements about policy. In the 1870s, Gladstone did express regret over his support for the Confederacy. Recanting one’s views after an epic military defeat is a common theme of history. It should be observed that as late as October of 1865, Gladstone was still defending the Confederacy…

    It is worth noting that before Gladstone’s Newcastle speech, the Liberal government was on the verge of recognizing the Confederacy. Gladstone’s speech had the (unintended effect) of blocking the recognition he advocated. The fact that Gladstone’s speech backfired would have assuredly caused him (Gladstone) to regret his speech. See “United States Congressional serial set, Issue 6500”

    “The leaders of the British cabinet were not friendly, although Lord Palmerston, fortunately for us, was more indifferent and less actively hostile than was generally supposed, and neither he nor Lord John Russell, who was much less friendly, was disposed to precipitate war. The one out-spoken champion of the Confederacy was Gladstone; but fate so willed it that in striving to harm the United States he rendered it a great and decisive service. It was in the autumn of 1862, a very dark hour in the fortunes of the United States. The ministry were preparing to recognize the Confederacy. The Queen, since the death of Prince Albert, as Mr. Charles Francis Adams has recently shown, had ceased to interest herself in American affairs. A cabinet meeting was called for October 23, and then the recognition of the Confederacy was to be given. On the 7th of October Mr. Gladstone, anticipating the action of the Cabinet, went to Newcastle and delivered the famous speech in which he declared that ” Jefferson Davis had made a nation.” Lord Palmerston saw his successor in Gladstone, but he had no intention of letting him rule before his time. He resented the Newcastle speech; lie did not propose to have Mr. Gladstone force his hand, and a week later he sent Sir George Lewis down to Hereford to controvert and disavow the Newcastle utterances. The Cabinet meeting on the 23d was postponed, but the accepted time had passed, and never returned.”

    The question of the actual policy of the Liberal government (Gladstone, Russel, Palmerston) can be examined not just by examining the public statements of the individuals involved, but the actions taken by the Liberal government. The Liberal government was officially neutral. In substance it was not. The Liberal government allowed an Anglo-French loan to the Confederacy to be floated in London and Paris (the Erlanger Cotton Bonds).

    There is a claim that Gladstone personally subscribed to the (in)famous Cotton Bonds. The charge has never been proven or disproven. It is perhaps worthwhile to note that Bright regarded Gladstone as an unequivocal supporter of the Confederacy and encouraged the publication of the Cotton Bonds accusation against Gladstone.

    Gladstone’s strong support for the Confederacy and somewhat tepid opposition to slavery must be considered in the context of his fierce hostility towards opium. Gladstone stated that he felt

    “in dread of the judgments of God upon England for our national iniquity towards China”

    Gladstone condemned the conflict over opium as

    “a war more unjust in its origin, a war more calculated in its progress to cover this country with permanent disgrace”.

    Apparently, Gladstone was deeply influenced by his sister Helen’s addiction to opium. He may have also been influenced by his father who owned 2,508 slaves across nine Caribbean plantations until the UK abolished slavery in 1834. The following quote should be helpful

    “Glimpses of a Global Life”

    “But this amount was dwarfed by the amount paid to John Gladstone… He received £106, 769 (modern equivalent £83m) for the 2,508 slaves he owned across nine plantations. His son, who served as Prime Minister four times during his 60 year career, was heavily involved in his father ‘s claim.”

    However, the most important Liberal support for the Confederacy came not from the sale of Cotton Bonds, but weapons. The Liberal government proved quite willing to provide warships to the Confederacy (in violation of British law). Notably, the CSS Alabama was built in a British shipyard and used by the Confederacy as a commerce raider.

    Quotes from “The Confederacy and Britain”

    “Whilst it’s true that the Confederacy, despite its lack of strong industrial base that the North had, managed to produce some impressive arms, they also imported much from Britain. Especially rifles. It’s suggested that around 900,000 rifles were imported between 1861-1865, almost all made in Enfield.”

    “Bulloch managed to purchase the CSS Alabama, despite British neutrality. CSS Alabama was built in secret though the Prime Minister knew, in Birkenhead. Bulloch managed to sneak Alabama out of Liverpool, and over to the Confederacy, though the ship never docked in any Confederate port. For the next couple of years, it managed to raid 450 Union vessels, burn 65 Union merchant ships, and take 2000 prisoners. CSS Alabama (along with other ships out of Liverpool, including the CSS Shenandoah) was key to the Confederate war effort.”

    After the Civil War ended, the U.S. government sued the British for the illegal sale of warships to the Confederacy. A court of arbitration awarded the U.S. damages of $15.5 million which the British government (Gladstone) paid.

    Even after the (illegal) construction of CSS Alabama, British shipyards continued to build warships for the Confederacy with the complicity of the Liberal government. Indeed, British shipyards built ironclads (called rams) for the Confederacy. The U.S. ambassador to the UK (Charles Francis Adams) directly intervened to prevent these warships from being delivered to the Confederacy. Adams wrote a note to Liberal Foreign Minister Lord Russell. The key phrase follows.

    “it would be superfluous in me to point out to your Lordship that this means war”

    Adam’s threat of all-out war was taken seriously. The ironclads were not delivered to the Confederacy, nor were any other warships subsequently.

    It is certainly true that British Liberals opposed slavery. Some more than others to be sure. However, the notable point is that opposition to slavery was secondary to support for Free Trade. Palmerston’s comments on the Morrill Tariff were entirely indicative of British Liberalism. Slavery was bad (“We do not like slavery”), however restrictions on trade were far worse (“we dislike very much your Morrill tariff”). It should be noted that Palmerston was the Prime Minister of the UK at that point.

    Of course, Liberal support for the Confederacy was not limited to the most senior members of the Liberal government. For example, Arthur Roebuck, the Liberal MP from Sheffield purchased Cotton Bonds, was a member of the Southern Independence Association and raised a motion in the House of Commons to officially recognize the Confederacy. He also advocated arming and aiding the Confederacy.

    It can be argued that the positions of Palmerston and Russell simply reflected England’s national interests. i.e. that England would benefit from the destruction of the (American) union. Had they stated the question in practical terms, it could and should be debated as such. However, they chose to couch the issue in terms of “free trade” versus slavery. Given the choice, they preferred slavery.

  2. 2 peterschaeffer August 10, 2016 at 10:18 am

    Let me at this point move on to the interesting tale of Mr. John Bowring of “Free trade is Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ is free trade” infamy. Mr. Glasner states that no mention of Mr. Bowring appears in the index of Morley’s biography of Gladstone, and from this infers that Mr. Bowring was obscure…

    Alas, Mr. Bowring was quite well known to Mr. Gladstone. As I have stated previously, Mr. Gladstone bitterly opposed opium (for quite legitimate personal reasons derived for his sister’s addiction to opium). This led Mr. Gladstone to a more than passing knowledge of Mr. Bowring. Let me quote from

    “”Willaim Ewart Gladstone and his contemporaries, Volumes 3-4”

    “Mr. Gladstone protested against diverting attention from the government by accusations against Sir John Bowring, whose conduct was involved in the decisions, but whom they were not trying judicially. Their prime and paramount duty was to consider the interests of humanity and the honour of England. The policy of Sir John Bowling was not unknown to the government nor by them disapproved.”

    The context was the Second Opium War of course. Bowring’s execrable conduct in Hong Kong should not really surprise anyone. He was a sadly typical Liberal of his day. Before triggering the Second Opium War, Bowring negotiated a “trade” agreement with Siam (Thailand now). His approach was very much in character. Quote from “Sir John Bowring: a Controversial Hyperglot”

    “”I have a large fleet at my disposal but I would rather visit you as a friend than as bearer of a menacing message”

    The same article states that Mr. Bowring has the dubious honor of being one of the fathers of gunboat diplomacy. Dubious indeed.

    Aside from Gladstone’s personal familiarity with Bowring a few other points need to be made. Bowring was born in 1792. Gladstone was born in 1809. Bowring’s life essentially preceded Gladstone by one generation (with obvious overlap as stated above). Google provides an approximate proxy for how well known anyone is (was). William Gladstone (311K) gets roughly 2.5 times as many hits as Bowring (125K).

    Some additional information on Bowring is contained in

    “SIR JOHN BOWRING AND THE CHINESE AND SIAMESE COMMERCIAL TREATIES”

    A few choice quotes include

    “It is not necessary here to describe Bowring’s career as a radical politician in England, for this has already been done in an earlier article. It may be recalled, however, that Bowring came out to the Far East full of zeal for the cause of Free Trade, which he had enthusiastically supported during his years as a member of parliament, and determined to open China to the benefits of western commercial civilization.”

    Opium was one of those “benefits of western commercial civilization”.

    “and though stiff they are as subtle as otters. Before we end I am afraid we shall have to employ something harder than brain bullets”

    That would be the Armstrong Gun that the British used against the Chinese in the Second Opium War.

    The Internet has a wealth of additional information about the life and times of John Bowring. None of it alters the conclusion that in choosing between “Free Trade” and opium, he showed no restraint in using force to promote addiction.

    Some number of years ago, I read a number of books on the Opium Wars. Of course, Palmerston and Bowring appear prominently in these pages (as does Gladstone on the other side of the issue). These books provided many insights, one of which is that “free trade” can be (and frequently is) a cult. I am not arguing that trade is always bad or that protectionism is always good. However, much of the advocacy of “free trade” is of an absurd religious nature.

    The best way of understanding “free trade” zealotry is not by studying economics, but Communism and Islamism. For many “free trade” advocates (not all to be sure) the issue is one of dogma and absolutism, not reason. Stated directly, the ideology of “free trade” owes more to Pol Pot and Sayyid Qutb than Ricardo. This statement on my part is not a suggestion that Ricardo should be ignored. Indeed, he should be studied along with Stolper–Samuelson and Heckscher–Ohlin.

    Unfortunately for many, the ideology of “free trade” has left reason behind. A quote from Thomas Friedman should make this clear.

    “I was speaking out in Minnesota — my hometown, in fact — and a guy stood up in the audience, said, “Mr. Friedman, is there any free trade agreement you’d oppose?” I said, “No, absolutely not.” I said, “You know what, sir? I wrote a column supporting the CAFTA, the Caribbean Free Trade initiative. I didn’t even know what was in it. I just knew two words: free trade.””

  3. 3 David Glasner August 11, 2016 at 7:28 pm

    eter, Everyone knows that “liberal” has a pretty elastic meaning, so you are pushing through an open door when you say that modern American liberalism is very different from nineteenth-century British liberalism. Nor did I even say that you can’t be a liberal and protectionist. What I said was that it is quite a stretch to say that unless you are a protectionist, you can’t be a liberal.

    Although my focus was on the deep historical connection between liberalism and free trade, even if you want to declare that nineteenth century British liberalism is under quarantine, owing to the sins of Sir John Bowring, Lord Palmerston and W. E. Gladstone, and even if we agree that John Stuart Mill was an eccentric anomaly, there is still no tradition of support for protectionism among American liberals in the twentieth century. FDR and his secretary of state Cordell Hull steadily reduced tariffs during FDR’s three terms in office, and the Kennedy Round of GATT negotiations led to a major international reduction in tariffs in the 1960s. You can appropriate the term “liberal” to the elements of the modern Democratic” party “focused on the well-being of workers, small farmers, trade unionists, the poor, etc.” if you like, but I see no reason why those Democrats have a more legitimate, much less an exclusive, claim to be called “liberals” than do Tim Kaine and the DLC.

    Classical liberalism was not a monolithic doctrine, and the supposed hostility of classical liberalism to any form of welfare assistance to the poor was not derived from basic principles, so Mill’s position was actually not inconsistent with classical liberal principles even if he was to the “left” of most of his contemporaries on such issues.

    Your attempts to show that British Liberals were more attached to free trade than they were opposed to slavery obviously suits your ideological animus against free trade, but you are arguing like a prosecuting attorney. Arthur Roebuck, like John Bowring, was a minor figure in the development of political liberalism. And Palmerston may have been a Liberal Prime Minister, but he was a Prime Minister first and a British Imperialist second and a Liberal third. The fact that he said that he told Charles Francis Adams that he “disliked” slavery and “disliked very much” the Morril tariff proves nothing about what the hierarchy of classical liberal values was, and I can’t understand why you would think that anyone would be convinced by such a remark made in such a context about what that hierarchy of values was.

    I did not say that Gladstone didn’t know who Bowring was; my point was that Bowring was not a sufficiently significant figure in the political life of Great Britain in the nineteenth century to rate a single mention in Morely’s three volume biography of Gladstone. Evidently Bowring was more influential as a diplomat and a representative of British colonial interests than as a political figure.

    You can always find anecdotes about silly things that people say. So I am not surprised that you can find plenty of anecdotes in which people supporting free trade have said stupid things. But don’t think you have refuted an idea when you have found and ridiculed the stupidest argument in its favor.

  4. 4 Benjamin Cole August 11, 2016 at 9:34 pm

    Now, I do not know if I am a liberal, a “liberal” or not a liberal.

  5. 5 Thanos August 12, 2016 at 12:21 pm

    I want to remind peterschaeffer that the Whigs passed the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833! The Whig party later became the Liberal party. The Liberal Party was a coalition of Whigs, free trade Tory followers of Robert Peel, and free trade Radicals. So is is really weird to claim that British Classical liberals supported slavery in the 19th century!!

    Also, there is no nation of Columbia! I suppose you mean Colombia!

  6. 6 Thanos August 12, 2016 at 1:20 pm

    I want also to comment that the The “Classical Liberalism” Wikipedia page is a shame!

  7. 7 peterschaeffer August 12, 2016 at 3:15 pm

    Thanos, You are correct. Columbia should be Colombia. I have never asserted that British Liberals supported slavery (although Gladstone came close). Indeed, I wrote

    “It is certainly true that British Liberals opposed slavery. Some more than others to be sure. However, the notable point is that opposition to slavery was secondary to support for Free Trade. Palmerston’s comments on the Morrill Tariff were entirely indicative of British Liberalism. Slavery was bad (“We do not like slavery”), however restrictions on trade were far worse (“we dislike very much your Morrill tariff”). It should be noted that Palmerston was the Prime Minister of the UK at that point.”

    However, my point was (and remains) that support for “free trade” took precedence over opposition to slavery. Palmerston was quite clear on this point. Even without Palmerston’s words (and worse, Gladstone’s). we have the actual policy of the Liberal government. Under the Liberal government, Britain supplied warships to the Confederacy (and other weapons as well). Had it not been for Adam’s intervention, the UK would have supplied ironclads.


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About Me

David Glasner
Washington, DC

I am an economist in the Washington DC area. My research and writing has been mostly on monetary economics and policy and the history of economics. In my book Free Banking and Monetary Reform, I argued for a non-Monetarist non-Keynesian approach to monetary policy, based on a theory of a competitive supply of money. Over the years, I have become increasingly impressed by the similarities between my approach and that of R. G. Hawtrey and hope to bring Hawtrey's unduly neglected contributions to the attention of a wider audience.

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