Creative Protection: Capitalism and Governmental Authority in U.S. Tariff Politics, 1789-1860
Between the ratification of the Constitution and the outbreak of the Civil War, the American Congress regularly engaged in the delicate process of crafting trade legislation that balanced the revenue needs of the federal government with demands for protection of domestic industries. Both in the halls of Congress and throughout newspapers, pamphlets, and the private correspondence of economic actors, discussions of trade and tariffs stimulated political conflict and influenced what goods Americans possessed, produced, and consumed. This project explores how and why residents and representatives of the trans-Appalachian West engaged in the highly contentious tariff politics of the early American republic. I argue that trade policy elicited sustained controversy because of conflicting understandings of markets and the market process forged in response to the economic transformations of the nineteenth century. Throughout this period of market integration and commercial and industrial diversification, free trade advocates and protectionists developed and promoted competing assessments of what happened when supposedly “self-regulating” markets supplanted the authority of governmental institutions in guiding economic development. Merchants, farmers, and manufacturers in Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, and Tennessee engaged in the politics of trade policy in a manner that reflected their distinct economic geography. In contrast to the more rigid embrace of protectionism among northern industrialists and free trade from those invested in southern cotton slavery, westerners fluctuated in their views on trade legislation. Because the success or failure of tariff laws consistently hinged on a small number of votes, the mixed support for free trade and protection from representatives of the western interest in Congress played a determinative role in shaping trade policy. Ultimately, western views on trade and tariffs illuminate a hybrid set of ideas that joined an economically liberal view of markets with demands for the exercise of legitimate governance in supporting regional development. The disruptive, yet innovative, growth of the first half of the nineteenth century encouraged Americans to look both to markets and nations for freedom from poverty and shelter from the process of “creative destruction.” These ideas emerged again in response to the monopolistic capitalism of the so-called “Gilded Age,” but they are rooted in debates over the power granted to Congress in trade policy that unfolded during the earliest years of nationhood.