The Triumph of the Antebellum Free Trade Movement

The Triumph of the Antebellum Free Trade Movement

The Triumph of the Antebellum Free Trade Movement

The Triumph of the Antebellum Free Trade Movement

Synopsis

In the wake of the War of 1812, the Madison and Monroe administrations oversaw the institution of a series of protective tariffs meant to shield fledgling American industries from British product "dumping." While southerners supported these protectionist measures early on, they quickly came to disapprove of them as severe impediments to trade with the West Indies, an important source of sugarcane and tobacco. In the decades that followed, tariffs became a hotly contested issue, the North favoring protectionism and the South advocating for free trade.

Debates over the new protective system involved political, economic, constitutional, and even social considerations. The debate set different regions and a multitude of socioeconomic interests against one another; ultimately, it helped spawn the second American party system and define the nature of partisan politics for decades.

In The Triumph of the Antebellum Free Trade Movement, William Belko provides a full and detailed investigation into the heated tariff debate of the late 1820s, focusing on its fascinating climax: the Philadelphia Free Trade Convention of 1831. As such, this intriguing volume is the first in-depth examination of the events directly preceding the famous Compromise Tariffs that were meant to bind Americans together but ultimately hastened the loosening of the cords of the Union.

Excerpt

In September of 1831, the noted Virginia jurist and former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Philip Pendleton Barbour was on his way to Philadelphia to attend a national convention of free trade advocates. Before arriving in Philadelphia, Barbour stopped for a brief rest at Barnum’s in Baltimore. There, according to friends of the protective tariff, Barbour eagerly sought a confrontation with any pro-tariff man he could. A merchant from Rhode Island responded to the challenge, and the two engaged in a lengthy verbal battle over U.S. tariff policy and the nature of the tariff system itself. Barbour, a staunch opponent of the protective system, so much so that those attending the Philadelphia convention elected him president of the assemblage, commenced with a “pretty vigorous attack” on the current tariff laws and their ruinous consequences for the South. The Virginian first addressed the unconstitutionality of the protective tariff and then backed his general theoretical arguments with specific examples of how it “operated with such a destructive effect.” His opponent retaliated with facts and statistics of his own, each seemingly contradicting those spouted by Barbour. As in most debates of such nature, the verbal battle between the eastern merchant and the southern planter went nowhere, each sticking to his guns and each withdrawing from the battle in the same condition as he entered, yet each more convinced of the correctness of his own position. Whether the two men unleashed a “tremendous volley of theories and abstractions” or delved into tariff rates, prices of goods, the various articles to be protected, and the consequent effect upon the various regions of the country, agreement between the two appeared impossible. Yet such was the nature of the tariff controversy raging throughout the United States by the fall of 1831. The confrontation at Barnum’s was but a microcosm of the debate consuming the nation overall. To reach some sort of resolution, some sort of consensus, and thus diffuse such a volatile and divisive issue, a substantial contingent of anti-tariff, free trade . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.