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Bowdoin Economist Examines Colombian Trade, Then and Now

Story posted February 19, 2009

Longfellow etching
Etching of Longfellow at around age 20, shortly after his graduation from Bowdoin. Courtesy Bowdoin College Archives.

Bowdoin economist Stephen Meardon traced the "footprints on the sands of time" of one of Bowdoin's most illustrious graduates, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, in a probing talk that compared 19th century U.S. trade treaties with the pending U.S-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement.

"Trade Treaties in Longfellow's Time," held on Feb. 12, 2009, was part of Longfellow Days, an annual Brunswick celebration of the poet's life and works.

Longfellow would seem an unlikely participant in trade policy debates, noted Meardon. While a student at Bowdoin in the early to mid 1820s, Longfellow asked his father, then a U.S. congressman, to send back periodicals from Washington—"the more Literature and the less of Politics, the better." But U.S. foreign policy and trade policy were topics of intense debate during Longfellow's Bowdoin years, and he could hardly have avoided them if he had tried. In fact, he contributed actively to the debates as a member of Bowdoin's Peucinian Society.

The concerns that were voiced in those debates motivated the first U.S. trade treaty in the Americas, signed with Colombia in 1824. They still echo, Meardon said, in today's stalled agreement with Colombia.

steve meardon
Stephen Meardon

The treaty of 1824 was shepherded by then-Secretary of State John Quincy Adams. While ostensibly promoting exchange of goods through equitable tariff treatment, the treaty was especially effective in opening up navigation channels between the U.S. and its South American partner. Over half of the articles of the U.S-Colombia treaty concerned navigation, noted Meardon, reflecting Adams' determination that "free ships make free goods."

The agreement ultimately served more political, rather than commercial, purposes, by "leading the new republics of Latin America to look more generally to the U.S. instead of Europe, not only for their goods but for the models of their institutions," noted Meardon. In fact, Great Britain recognized Colombian independence shortly after the U.S.-Columbia treaty was signed.

The actual commercial freedom that the treaty fostered was short-lived. In 1829, General Bolivar of Colombia imposed a five percent surcharge on re-exports of other countries' goods, putting the U.S. at a severe disadvantage relative to its greatest rival, Great Britain. Four subsequent U.S. administrations sought to remove the surcharge; not until President Polk obtained the Treaty of Peace, Amity, Navigation, and Commerce of 1846 was the surcharge lifted—in exchange for a U.S. guarantee of Granadian sovereignty over the Isthmus of Panama.

"The U.S. is a big economy, and in net welfare terms, the benefits of the agreement are the merest blip."

Elements of the current U.S.-Colombia agreement are reminiscent of these earlier trade negotiations, said Meardon. The net economic benefit of the agreement to the U.S. is even more negligible than in 1824. "The U.S. is a big economy, and in net welfare terms, the benefits on our side are the merest blip," noted Meardon. More likely, he said, the proposed trade agreement was proffered by the Bush administration as a means of support for the republican government in Colombia against attacks from the FARC guerilla insurgency.

Meardon argued that these political motives are not inappropriate, as some critics suggest, but are an historically important function of trade agreements: "Bilateral trade deals have a history of being intended to serve, and in some forms serving, precisely the function of aiding friendly governments—indeed they may serve that function better than any other," he said.

"That was certainly the case in 1825, when the Treaty of Amity Commerce, and Navigation gave indispensible moral and political support to a friendly government trying desperately to sustain its republican form against despotic designs," noted Meardon. "And, substituting Hugo Chavez and the FARC for the Holy Alliance and Great Britain, it would be precisely the case today."

It is a pattern from the past that might have earned Longfellow's invocation from Ladder of St. Augustine: "Nor deem the irrevocable Past, As wholly wasted, wholly vain, If, rising on its wrecks, at last To something nobler we attain."

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