Abstract: The Moral Economy of British Liberalism: Fair Trade and General Incorporation in the Nineteenth-Century

David Chan Smith


Long criticized as a source of corruption and monopolistic influence, the Anglo-American corporation has even been likened to a sociopath. It is therefore easy to forget that moral arguments were once used to advance general incorporation in Britain. This paper reconstructs the importance of ideas of “fair trade” in debates over general incorporation in Britain from 1841-1854. Fair trade was a common keyword in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that was used to describe commercial behavior that was honest and “followed the rules.” Appearing in numerous contexts, from copyright disputes to protectionism and opposition to smuggling, fair trade was a moralistic assumption that markets ought to be a level playing field. This paper investigates the background of this keyword by surveying its use in business texts as well as general commentaries in newspapers and journals. Through research drawn from public debate and parliamentary papers on general incorporation from the 1830s to 1854, the paper will then explain why fair trade proved such an effective idea to promote general incorporation. This research also builds on the historiography that examines working class support for general incorporation as an opportunity to compete with entrenched business interests. The paper will argue that fair trade was also a means for contemporaries to describe access to and inclusion within market society. By doing so, this paper contributes an analysis of an important aspect of the moral framework of business in a developing market economy. Fair trade operated to legitimize the distinctive moral economy of British liberalism, as advocates presented general incorporation as a means for all participants in commercial society to compete on a level playing field and obtain material rewards.