February 20, 2006

The Anglosphere and the European Trading Republics: A Love Story

In the course of recently reading:

  • Hanson on the Athenian grudge match that was the Peloponnesian War,
  • Crosby on the shift by the Northern Italian republics to widespread visualization and quantification,
  • McNeill on the history of Venice, and
  • Rodger on the naval history of England (2 vols.) during the Anglo-Dutch and English Civil Wars,

I began seeing a pattern in situations where sea-going merchants get their hands on a strategically safe city and start getting creative with their politics.

In the spirit of amateur insanity that inspired my blog posts on “ the Secret Weapon of the Anglosphere” and “ World War Zero” let me offer a new adventure in linking the unlinkable.


Arrogant Nasty republican Merchants In Boats

The historical pattern appears to be the following:

  1. A city-state isolated in some way from the great empires of the day.
  2. An economy based on trade from far-flung regions.
  3. A civic structure that accommodated the liquidity and portability of its sea-going citizens’ equity by minimizing arbitrary confiscation.
  4. A willingness to colonize, primarily for trading purposes.
  5. An enthusiasm for the skills required for navigation, shipping and finance, i.e., literacy, artisanry, and innovation.
  6. Maritime operation, ideally, at the margins of larger political entities, where one or more quadrants of the compass were free from significant enemies.
  7. The use of creative ways in which the owners, captains, and crew of merchant vessels were able to share in the proceeds of trade, and by which authority for both ship and cargo were divested for long periods of time to the “people on the ground.”
  8. Grudging but effective acceptance of successful merchants into the civic power structure.
  9. Notable innovation in the military side of seagoing power in order to protect merchant shipping, whether in ship design, manning or weaponry.
  10. A willingness for merchants to invest in the elaborate glorification of their mother-city once they’d made their non-portable equity safe.
  11. A considerable moral flexibility in the pursuit of profit such that the line between friend and foe, piracy and trade was repeatedly and enthusiastically blurred … maintaining a fierce hypocritical conviction about one’s own superiority and virtue.
  12. A propensity for violence and cruelty matched only by their capacity to find ways to establish bonds of trust between strangers.

For the sake of argument, if we can apply this pattern to Athens, early Rome (maybe), the late medieval northern Italian city-republics, and 17th century Holland and England, we find ourselves with another pattern:

  1. The use of Athens, republican Rome, and English civic/legal/religious history to create an new vision of the trading republic -- the wealthiest trading republic in human history, in fact – the United States of America.

Here we can turn for illumination to the works of Surowiecki on the “ wisdom of crowds” effect, Lipson on the how democracies (and therefore trading republics) resolve differences, and Nisbett on the distinctions between East Asian and Western perceptual biases (which he sources in Greek history).

Somewhere along the line, despite many contributions of technology and genius from continental powers to the prosperity and development of the Anglosphere, it is the heritage drawn from the old trading republics that provides models for running the Anglosphere. Our philosophical sources are Plato and Aristotle. Our history begins with Herodotus. Our art, music, textual organization, optics, navigation, shipbuilding, and bookkeeping are Venetian, or Genoan, or Florentine. Our political models are Greek and Roman with English parliamentary elaboration.

And I dare say that if we proclaim the values of the Anglosphere, they are far more in tune with the rambunctious, individualistic, and self-regarding postures of those trading republics than they are with any dream or masterwork of continental despots or imperial bureaucrats around the world. Not to say that such strains are absent from modern political discourse in the Anglosphere … but the tale we tell ourselves, about what it means to be an Anglosphere citizen, seem to draw most deeply on those handful of republics (most of whom lasted only a century or two at best) that had both geography and political culture on their side.

Isn’t it one of the great mysteries of world history that the last century has been strongly influenced by a continental trading republic … remote from its authoritarian enemies yet drawn again and again into global commerce and geopolitics?

Perhaps America is simply the most recent and most enduring of the economic and political experiments which began on the Aegean some 2400 years ago.

From an Anglosphere perspective, it would be useful to determine whether the nature of European trading republics through the centuries (their unique geography, civic pride, independent citizenry, and notable vulnerability) was central to shaping the Anglosphere, or was an incidental similarity to what developed in England.

Posted by jmccormick at February 20, 2006 06:25 PM

The Founding Fathers also took Venice, which was at the time the world's longest lasting republic even though it shortly thereafter fell to Napoleon.

Most of these were trading more than manufacturing republics. With the Industrial revolution manufacturing became intrinsicly more important with consequent effects on Britain & the US. Even Singapore, which should fit this pattern as well as anybody in the world is primarily a manufacturing centre.

It will be interesting to see if societies at L4, L5 & the Moon become primarily trading rather than manufacturing centres.

Posted by: Neil Craig at February 21, 2006 07:31 AM

Dude. This is a rather sweeping meta-vision. I have some issues with it.

I don't think Rome belongs in this group. Rome was a different kind of animal. I don't think there was continuity between Athens and the city republics of the Christian era. I think that the founding intellectuals of the West were much less Aristotle and Plato than they were the Church Fathers, the Schoolmen, etc. I'm not sure when Herodotus was reintroduced into Europe.

I think the actual evolution of European economic primacy went along essentially these lines: Venice, Italian city republics, Flanders especially Antwerp, Netherlands especially Amsterdam, England especially London. So, the actual historical lineage includes one community that never had its own navy. You might also look at the Hanseatic league of trading cities, which I think had many of the characteristics you note.

The unique size and economic power of the USA, as you noted in your last post, may turn on the fact that it is at once a continent-sized maritime city republic, but also has the characteristics of other kinds of polities, so it has a variety of strenghts. In Walter Russell Meads terms, you are describing the "Hamiltonian" sector of American society. But we have others which have other strengths.

Posted by: Lex at February 21, 2006 07:39 AM

(1) FYI, John Julius Norwich also wrote an excellent History of Venice.

(2) Re your thesis, portable wealth and diverse skill sets would greatly decentralize decision-making and political power. So for me, the interesting question would be "what ideologies, narratives, binding factors, etc counterbalanced the centrifugal forces of decentralization?"

Posted by: PN NJ at February 21, 2006 07:59 AM

Neil C.:

Very useful comments re: Venice. Yes, the trading angle tied to republicanism seems important. Manufacturing tends to concentrate wealth -- and the social stagnation of the UK post-1850, and the Gilded Age in the US -- suggest that the trade element was an earlier, important part of keeping wealth decentralized.

Lex: I tagged Rome as a "maybe" but felt it could not be missed because the US used republican Rome as a constitutional example - and very much understood the nature of a republic (which Athens wasn't). But Rome's initial land and city-based orientation sowed the seeds of its constitutional demise.

Tying back to Crosby, his point is that the real change in the West occurred when the Scholastics had to cope with more than the Church Fathers ... when the wave of translations out of the Byzantine and Muslim world reintroduced Greek history and philosophy to the West.

As best as I can determine, Herodotus had made it into Latin by 1494 (trans. Valla) but would have been read in Greek (via the Byzantines) in n. Italy much earlier, one assumes.

Flanders/Antwerp is an interesting example because it was virtually a wholly-owned branch plant of the northern Italians who trans-shipped "fuller's earth" for the wool cloth trade from the Med for the Flemish in the largest wooden ships of the era, and took cloth south in return. I'd have to do some reading to determine what Flemish political status was. Antwerp started as a border province of the Holy Roman Empire according to this:


Not a good sign that it was ever a "trading republic" as opposed to rich trading port. And, of course, during the Counter-Reformation and after, the Dutch and Spanish pretty much put Antwerp up on blocks. Antwerp didn't have an "out" - as Athens, N. Italy, Holland, England, and the US did.

Similarly, the Hanseatic League's loose affiliation and apparent lack of an associated civic republicanism makes me leery to include it as a trading republic - multi-city trading oligopoly perhaps. And it stands as another example of an organization that was unchallenged locally but effectively sealed off from the Atlantic by its competitors in latter eras.

As my numbered list suggests, I feel it was the combination of maritime skill, geographic position (with an "out"), and city-based republicanism that distinguished the ancient and early trading republics ... and that became the wellspring of American, if not Anglospheric, republicanism. The "love affair" that that Anglosphere has for centuries with the cultural products of Athens and northern Italy seems, to me, unlikely to be mere chance.

I very much agree with your "Hamiltonian" assessment ... and agree that the old Mead schools of foreign policy lend the "continental city" additional strength. The point we might ponder is whether the "trading republic" origins of the US were the unique pivot that allowed the new nation to grow in an unexpected way. If one of the other three schools had been responsible for origins, the direction of the nation would have been much different.

PN NJ: Norwich was out of the library. McNeill wasn't. Thnx, for the citation.

Your interesting question *is* very interesting. A "civic spirit" seemed to be important -- as glorifying the home port became a matter of pride for successful merchants. The port was both refuge and billboard. Venetian constitutional history, for example, records the struggle to balance wealth, power, and aristocracy. Bottled in the Adriatic, the Venetians had a common interest in both individual achievement and communal protection. They sacrificed a great deal for the latter. Unfortunately, their constitutional solutions (per McNeill) became too rigid ... plus the Ottomans finally slaughtered them out of the Aegean and altered their imperial capacities.

Athens, Amsterdam, and London speak for themselves. And perhaps the National Mall in DC stands as an example of how to bind a continent-sized city together.

Posted by: James McCormick at February 21, 2006 12:26 PM

On Venice, in addition to the Ottomans slaughtering them out of the Mediterranean, the Venetians also lost due to Vasco da Gama opening up direct contact with the sources of trade goods. The Portuguese conquered the Indian Ocean, and the Ottomans and the Venetians lost their role as middle-men.

Posted by: Lex at February 21, 2006 01:01 PM

We should also consider the example of the United Provinces of the Netherlands, a.k.a. the Dutch Republic. Where, after all does the inspiration to call it "the United States of America" come from?

Also, sprinkled throughout the later writings of French historian Fernand Braudel is the idea that there are two Frances. Not the usual north and south, but east and west. Atlantic and Continental.

As he saw it, France's future lay out to sea, and he offered the opinion that the men Charles VIII wasted in attempting to conquer Italy and Louis XIV wasted in attempting to conquer the Low Countries would have been better utilized in colonizing North America. We might add to these numbers the French that were wasted in the Terror and in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.

He also thought that the France that might have accomplished this would have been the one where the national capital was relocated downriver, from Paris to Rouen. Paris, as he saw it, was too preoccupied with events in Italy, the Rhinelands, and the Low Countries to profit from a galaxy of seaports that were seldom fully utilized.

Daniel MacGregor

Posted by: Daniel MacGregor at February 22, 2006 08:52 AM

"... Where, after all does the inspiration to call it "the United States of America" come from?" Why from the UNITED Kingdom, of course. But, I have to think that the United Provinces might have been the inspiration for the UK. I would need to dig in to the history to find out.

Braudel's maritime France that never happened is a great might-have-been. However, it was English insularity that permitted it to focus on the sea and overseas expansion. France has land frontiers and enemies and potential enemies at four sides of the hexagon. It could never focus on the sea because security concerns pushed it in the other direction.

Posted by: Lex at February 23, 2006 07:16 AM
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