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The War of 1812 and free trade

Free-traders often say that free trade will end wars—they’ve said this for a long time, it started with Cobden and Bright and their attempts to integrate Anglo-French trade in the mid-1800s and by the mid-2000s people spoke about “the McDonald’s argument”, the idea that no two countries with McDonald’s restaurant franchises have gone to war.

This argument is refuted by the War of 1812—before that war 80% of US cotton exports and 50% of her other exports went to Britain; and yet the two countries still fought a prolonged war—even though Britain’s armies in the simultaneous Peninsula War relied on food supplies from New England (further, the American war effort was actually underwritten by Barings Bank in London).

And, of course, remember that at this time Britain’s nascent industrial economy pretty much was cotton mills—so without American cotton there was no industrial Britain.

So just to have interlinked economies does not stop war—and that is the nub in the free-trade argument: the more integrated the economies, the less chance there will be a war.

The reason there has been peace in post-1945 Europe, for example, is not because the German and French economies became interlinked through the EU, but rather because most European countries are occupied by the Americans and don’t have real sovereignty.

Besides, the Russia-Ukraine War also refutes the “McDonald’s argument”, because both countries had McDonald’s restaurants at the start.

Free trade is a leftist argument, it’s a utopian belief that claims that aristocracy, war, and poverty go together—free trade will serve up a fine breakfast for the workman, once the tariffs are removed. If only we had free trade then there would be universal prosperity and no more war—but this just isn’t so; it’s really a prelude to socialism.


Historians claim to be confused about the cause of the War of 1812—some say it was to protect American honour and liberties, because the Royal Navy kept press-ganging American sailors (possibly over 10,000—but at least 6,000), others say the Americans just wanted to grab Canada (as they were about to grab Florida).

It was an attempt to grab Canada. You can tell because to go to war without a means to defeat the Royal Navy would make no difference to the press gang issue—and the Americans didn’t have the naval capacity to do that. Indeed, the press-ganging carried on after the war and gave the Americans no more cause for dispute.

That’s because they were really after Canada, and they were rebuffed in the 1812 war—so the pretext for the war, press-gangs, was quietly dropped afterwards (the vocal “invade Canada” faction in Congress was silenced).

However, if you read academic historians they’re still in a tangle over “Canada or press-gangs”—it keeps them employed, I suppose.


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