Abstract: A Natural Theology of Free Trade in the Nineteenth Century: The Corn Laws in Context

Thomas D. Finger


My presentation will describe the intense debate in Great Britain in the late 1830s and 1840s over the "Corn Laws"—a series of protective tariffs enacted by Parliament after the Napoleonic Wars and subsequently revised to ensure that British domestic wheat prices remained high. Beginning in the 1830s, however, many British politicians and businessmen argued that such policies unnecessarily restricted the flow of food from the productive areas of the globe, including the United States. This restriction, they argued, also choked off British exports as other nations raised retaliatory tariffs in response. Those businessmen employed the rhetoric of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and Thomas Malthus to argue that the agriculture of the British Isles could not consistently support its growing population. My presentation will focus mainly on the years 1830-1846, when the productive potential of the American interior was dreamed of by Americans and British alike, but results were still largely unrealized. Focusing on the Corn Law debates, I show a clear connection between the liberal economic ideology that the laws of nature dictated the necessity of free trade and the actual steps taken by one political organization—the Anti-Corn Law League—to obtain the fruits of comparative advantage.