Dael Norwood offers an engaging account of how Sino-American intercourse shaped the political economy of the United States in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Norwood situates the China Trade—by the late 1870s, the “China Market” (p. 157)—within a developing American national identity that trumpeted the United States’s centrality to systems of capitalism and global commerce. Through a series of vignettes highlighting crucial figures, legislation, and debates related to Sino-American trade, Norwood charts the rise and decline of U.S. commerce with the Qing Empire and its lasting impact on how Americans conceived of their nation’s place within the world economy.

Trading Freedom is foremost a history of the United States, and therein lie its strengths. Norwood brings a metropolitan perspective to debates that have captured the attention of China trade historians for years. Discussions linking the opium trade to American ideas of sovereignty (pp. 78–92), or debates connecting the trade in indentured Chinese labor to immigration law (pp. 130–32), masterfully interweave the complex agendas of the government, domestic lobbyists, and China merchants. Especially interesting in this regard is Norwood’s account of Asa Whitney’s campaign for a transcontinental railroad—a movement that used the prospect of Pacific trade with China to drive America’s global commercial ascendency (p. 111) while, ironically, directing much-needed capital away from a flagging China trade (p. 163). In these examples, and indeed throughout the book, Norwood makes a compelling case for China’s importance to the realization U.S. imperial ambitions.

The book is particularly effective in its discussion of Sino-American trade’s late nineteenth-century decline—a topic that has received only a light touch to date. Norwood ties this decline to the evolving industrial landscape of a maturing economy that saw the U.S. shift gears from an agricultural producer to a manufacturing giant intent to vent “surplus goods to overseas markets” (p. 176). The convincing argument contextualizes and expands greatly upon that advanced in Thomas McCormick’s China Market, providing a necessary answer to why old American China firms practicing outdated models of commission, brokerage, and shipping failed so spectacularly in the 1870s and 1880s.

Still, while the book is an American history, it would have been illustrative to see more nuanced accounts of the relationship between American private enterprise and politics in China. The filibusters hinted at (Frederick Townsend Ward comes to mind) were rather more of an issue to Sino-American relations than the discussion of Anson Burlingame’s diplomatic struggles suggests (p. 141). The Confederate raider Alabama never sailed further north than Borneo but did wreak havoc on American trading and Anglo-American politics (p. 141). The Taiping Civil War (p. 139)—quickly recognized as a disaster for commerce—proved integral to Sino-American and Anglo-American debates about neutrality and sovereignty both in China and at home.

Such points should not, however, detract from the impressive deft with which Norwood weaves together complex political and commercial developments unfolding in the United States and China. The book is well researched, crisply written, and, importantly, addresses a long-overlooked aspect of Sino-American contact. Trading Freedom is certain to become a vital reference point for scholars interested in the political economy of the United States, new histories of capitalism, and U.S. imperial ambitions.

Thomas M. Larkin
University of Bristol