A Revolution in Trade

Are political and economic liberalization mutual reinforcing phenomena? Are democratic countries more likely to trade with one another? These seem to be 20th century questions, but they trace back to the late 18th and early 19th century Atlantic revolutions. Patriots like Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and Spanish American revolutionaries like Simon Bolivar answered both affirmatively. For them, independence from European empires went hand in glove with freer trade and republican governance, or at least that was the idea.

Tyson Reeder’s compelling book, Smugglers, Pirates, and Patriots (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019), reminds us that reality did not always conform to the ideal. Sometimes republicans cut off trade and, as the case of Brazil reminds us, less free, more centralized monarchies introduced it. Followers of recent China-US trade negotiations might not be so surprised by this conclusion. Understanding early modern law and liberty requires context and this book provides ample amounts of it, while also demonstrating how two emerging nation-states navigated the Age of Revolution towards different political ends.

The title titillates readers about related themes that are explored, including the role of smuggling and privateering in shaping the economic and legal framework for empires and revolutions. The book also usefully speaks towards the uses and limits of state power in the early modern era, highlighting how mercantilist systems created a framework that merchants could both happily exploit and undermine. For better and worse the state just could not stop illicit trade. These topics are deftly explored in a book that probably offersthe most systematic examination to date of the political and economic relationship between the early United States (and its forebearers) and the Portuguese Empire (and its Brazilian progeny.) Drawing from a variety of sources and an impressive array of archives in Europe, the United States, and Brazil, Reeder offers a nuanced account filled with surprising developments and no shortage of insights and ironic twists.

It is well known that Britain’s North American colonists grew comparatively rich because of their place within the British Empire, not despite it. Less known is the process that led British Americans, particularly in Philadelphia, to benefit from Britain’s alliance and relatively free trade with Portugal and its colonies. London capital facilitated a trade chiefly of Madeira wine into the colonies with Delaware River Valley grain returning to Portugal and its Atlantic Islands. In the 1750s, however, reformer Marquis do Pombal sought to enhance Portugal’s own commercial prowess and restricted British trade within the Portuguese empire. The following decade, Britain’s own fiscally driven reforms increased regulations and attempted to curtail colonists’ smuggling. North American traders profiting from the Luso-Atlantic trade “lay especially vulnerable” to British regulation even as the need for American grains continued to encourage a robust and sometimes illicit trade between Philadelphia and Lisbon, a trade that grew to 100 ships in 1769. “States may have defined the legal parameters within which traders could maneuver,” Reeder notes, “but traders constructed relationships independent [and often in contravention] of state authority.” Imperial policies could help generate private enterprises but had little ability to control what happened next.

As crisis gave way to revolution, North American merchants “combined traditional British debates about political economy with Enlightenment rhetoric to defend their right to free trade and to defy the state to obtain it.” With increasing comfort, they violated British regulations and came to see smuggling as desirable and justifiable. By so doing, they conformed to pre-Adam Smithian challenges to mercantilist ideas forwarded by Hugo Grotius, Montesquieu, the Scottish Enlightenment, and most especially a British Radical Whig tradition recently explored by the work of Steven Pincus. Whereas most stories would end there, Reeder’s is truly trans-imperial. He situates that known story against similar challenges to enforce mercantilist policies within the Portuguese empire. In Brazil colonial merchants and even governors selectively enforced royal decree, while often turning a blind eye to smugglers, including slave traders, who they believed benefited that massive colony. Though not causal of the imperial crisis that followed the Seven-Years’ War, the Luso-American trade offers a window into the disruptions created by changes in imperial commercial regulation.

As Thomas Paine and other revolutionaries saw it, political independence would be the dawn of a new era in free trade. Independence did not, however, assist Luso-American trade. Spain and France became more attractive wine markets, and without fear of British retaliation, the Portuguese government restricted U.S. flour imports. With the exception of an 1809-1813 spike in the grain trade due to the need to feed British armies fighting Napoleon in Iberia, direct trade to Lisbon retreated in importance. In that context, post-Revolutionary North Americans started to anticipate the possibility of greater trade with Brazil, a colony they assumed would join the growing revolutionary paradigm that “pitted independence, republicanism, and free trade against empire, monarchy, and mercantilism.”

North Americans salivated at the prospect of an independent Brazilian republic. Intrigue started as early as Thomas Jefferson’s covert 1786 meeting in Nîmes with young revolutionary José Joaquim Maie e Barbalho and continued to actual revolutionary movements like the Inconfidência Mineira (the Minas Treachery) in the late 1780s and repeated efforts in the Pernambuco region of Brazil. American merchants, especially those in Philadelphia, merged the pursuit of profit and political sympathy and smuggled contraband to rebels. American informal involvement peaked after an 1810s uprising in the Banda Oriental (present day Uruguay) led by José Artigas resulted in tensions with Portugal and Spain. American ship captains, mostly based in Baltimore, accepted and even sought out Artigas’s letters of marque, allowing them to attack Portuguese ships. Such activity, however, proved embarrassing to American officials trying to demonstrate the federal government’s treaty-worthiness to European powers. Eventually, the Monroe administration and Congress created and more stringently enforced neutrality laws that were meant to curb what amounted to legalized piracy. Here Reeder offers a previously underappreciated backdrop for the Neutrality Laws of 1817 and 1818, one that reveals a partial sacrifice of the tradition of encouraging Republicanism and free trade in favor of international stability and trade with traditional powers. Post-revolutionary development on the world stage required balancing republican inspiration with real politick and a respect for international law.

In truth, Portuguese and Brazilian trade liberalization occurred not due to republican revolution but to monarchical advancement into the Western Hemisphere. Fleeing Napoleonic control in 1807, Prince Regent Dom João moved his sovereign authority to Brazil and quickly followed that by opening Brazilian ports to foreign trade. Pragmatic-minded freer trade thus re-enforced the bonds of empire and monarchy rather than undermining them. Even more confounding for American merchants, a month after Dom João’s liberalization, arch-Republican Thomas Jefferson and his political allies closed American ports with an embargo designed to end British and French attacks on US vessels. The paradigm had become temporarily inverted.

Some Americans continued to hope that a return to relative global peace in the late 1810s and 1820s could cultivate republican independence in Brazil and bring that growing market under the United States’ orbit. Instead, Brazil would seek its independence through a monarchical government governed by Dom João’s son. Doubly disappointing, it would remain beholden to British merchants for most of their trade. The expansive American System that Henry Clay and others envisioned, whereby American farmers, merchants, and manufacturers would not just dominate domestic markets but displace Britain in South America, failed to materialize.

Americans generally assume that political and economic liberalization work together to generate freer political systems and to advance the rule of law. Reeder’s book suggests that revolutions often subvert one rule of law while replacing it with another. In the case of Spanish America and the United States, independence was grounded in natural rights and free trade. By contrast, Brazilians pursued a form of independence from within and somewhat duplicative of the systems the U.S. rejected or significantly amended. Brazilians built upon free trade polices within the Portuguese empire and prioritized what they saw as the stability of the monarchy. In that sense, they resembled Canadians who a few decades later opted to retain the structure, forms, and connections of the British Empire. Reeder avoids offering value judgements on whether the Americans or Brazilians approach to the age of revolutions proved more beneficial for its citizens or economies, though the U.S.’s comparative prosperity and the eventual declaration of a Brazilian Republic in 1889 might offer a partial answer.

Rather than make these comparisons, though Reeder cautiously chooses to end his book with an important convergence between the two countries. The lone area of mid-19th century trade where the United States edged out Great Britain came from U.S. ships, which illegally smuggled the majority of slaves into Brazil in contravention to American domestic law, an 1827 Brazilian court ban on importation, and emerging western opinion against the noxious trade. This was not the type of liberty-loving smuggling that Americans had embraced as part of their revolution. It did, however, reflect another of the book’s undercurrents: the growing and selective application of race to explain political and economic developments. Smuggling and privateering captains had vested interests in recruiting multi-national, multi-ethnic crews. It gave them knowledge and claims to diverse nationalities that could help elude capture and avoid prosecution. Yet as the Portuguese and American states increasingly sought to crack down on illegal trade, they increasingly attacked pirates and smugglers on racialized terms. Not entirely unrelatedly, the persistence of Brazilian monarchism, even after political independence, eventually led many North Americans to assume that Brazilians were, on the whole, ethnically inferior and incapable of self-government.

In reality, that Brazilians never conformed to American expectations should not be that surprising. Portuguese independence on both sides of the Atlantic had long been sustained and mediated by British economic and political power. Brazilians naturally found British constitutional monarchy a more familiar and, they hoped, a more stable form of government to emulate. Americans were also somewhat selective in the type of Republican movements they supported. Their rejection of the Haitian Revolution (not mentioned in the book) and the distance they kept from a multi-ethnic Pan-American political movement in the 1820s showed how racism could limit U.S. official support for republicanism abroad. By the late antebellum period white southerners had concluded that the primary common cause to make with Brazilian officials was not trade or freer government, but from their shared commitment to slavery as a socio-economic system. Unfreedom would come to define the still unfulfilled dreams of a US-Brazilian partnership. That was a far cry from the optimism of the revolutionary era.