Abstract

“We must make known our case at Washington”: Trade, Tariffs, and Protective Liberalism, 1816-1820

While only sporadically thought of by most Americans today, tariffs were among the most consistently debated issues of political economy in the early American republic. Key studies of these early tariff debates have rightly asked why the seemingly mundane area of trade policy provoked conflict among early Americans. Relying primarily on congressional debates, these studies portray tariff controversies through a sectional lens in which northern protectionists and southern free trade advocates split over industrialization and slavery. In contrast, this paper incorporates discussions of trade from individual farmers, merchants, and manufacturers within the trans-Appalachian west to illuminate how local and regional development shaped national trade policy. Additionally, I utilize the works of economic theorists including Karl Polanyi and Joseph Schumpeter for broader frameworks of these discussions. Through this lens, I argue that differing assessments of the nature of markets shaped these early tariff controversies. After the War of 1812, Americans adjusted to relative international peace and rapid economic growth. Settlers in the trans-Appalachian west navigated changes in transportation, finance, and population. These developments fueled an economic boom that collapsed during the Panic of 1819. Western economic actors blamed harmful patterns of trade for precipitating this economic crisis. Consequently, they mobilized in support of a new tariff and elaborated a “protective liberalism” that intertwined the goals of social protection and economic liberalism. Proponents of protective liberalism then carried these goals into the heightened tariff controversies of the 1820s. Exploring the ways individuals engaged with the issue of trade policy while navigating modern economic development places the tariff debates of the early American republic within enduring conversations regarding market capitalism, globalization, and governmental authority.