Institutions occupy a central role in the history of trade and have been studied emphatically within the sub-field of economic history. An approach that is more attentive to texts, ideas and political debates in context adds to our understanding of institutional change and its enduring relevance. The history of free ports might be studied as a particular form of the history of capitalism, but also as an instantiation of the processes through which the politicization of commerce in the seventeenth and eighteenth century shaped subsequent regimes of international trade and political relations. 1 This paper fits with the latter approach. The one publication that might be considered to present a general history of free ports is Dermigny’s ‘Escales, échelles et ports francs’, published in 1974. 2 While this text (a book chapter of over 400 pages) provides an inventory of paradigmatic free ports and of ports that weren’t quite free ports, its narrative derived from a preoccupation with typology: what types of ports existed and what degree of freedom (fiscal, commercial, cultural) was required for a port to be a free port? Dermigny associated the establishment of free ports with the term ‘mercantilism’ and a tendency of the early modern and modern state in Europe to centralize its political economic decision-making. My paper tries to get away from this kind of narrative. By studying texts in which the political advantages and disadvantages (dangers to sectors in the national economy) of establishing free ports in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century are discussed, I attempt to trace a transformation in the usage of discriminatory mechanisms to separate the free port from the rest, the unfree so to speak. If a paradigmatic free port like Livorno in the seventeenth century was characterized primarily by its potential to attract trade through (religious, cultural and national) freedom for people to reside and operate in a free port, this appears to give way to a (fiscal, economic) focus on goods in later times. In other words, what made a free port a free port earlier on was determined by the inclusion of people with specific networks in the free port and their exclusion in the rest of the national territory. What made for a free port later on was the inclusion of goods in the free port and their exclusion in the rest of the territory. This transformation in its turn is used to draw attention to the political economic decision-making and the rival intellectual visions of international trade and politics that were developed by writers and statesmen at the time. The development of British and French Caribbean free ports after the Seven Years’ War and the debates about the possibility to turn entire states (Britain and the Dutch Republic – later the Dutch kingdom) into free ports are focused on as case studies in this regard. The research for this paper is part of my Academy of Finland Fellowship project on “Historical instruments of European integration: The commercial configuration of the ‘Balance of Power’” and incorporates questions that are operationalized within the network for the study of the history of free ports: “A Global History of Free Ports: Capitalism, Commerce and Geopolitics (1600–1900)”