Tariff Wars and the Politics of Jacksonian America

By Flaherty, Jane | The Journal of Southern History, November 2018 | Go to article overview

Tariff Wars and the Politics of Jacksonian America


Flaherty, Jane, The Journal of Southern History


Tariff Wars and the Politics of Jacksonian America. By William K. Bolt. New Perspectives on Jacksonian History. (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2017. Pp. [xviii], 301. Paper, $34.95, ISBN 978-0-8265-2137-8; cloth, $69.95, ISBN 978-0-8265-2136-1.)

In Tariff Wars and the Politics of Jacksonian America, William K. Bolt reviews tariff policy debates from the War of 1812 to the Civil War. "The tariff did not cause the Civil War. It did, however, bring countless Americans into the political process," Bolt theorizes (p. 208). As tariffs were the primary source of revenue for the antebellum federal government, tariff legislation remained a fixture in national discourse. Bolt suggests that these tariff debates helped "spread democracy" through public engagement (p. 4).

Although Bolt provides an instructive survey of the political maneuvering that led to the passage or failure of the different proposals, a more appropriate title for the book would replace Jacksonian America with Antebellum America. The political economy of Jacksonian democracy, defined as "an aversion to moneyed aristocracy, exclusive privileges, ... and a predilection for the common man," is not as developed in this book as one would expect or has been accomplished elsewhere (William S. Belko, "'A Tax on the Many, to Enrich a Few': Jacksonian Democracy vs. the Protective Tariff," Journal of the History of Economic Thought, 37 [June 2015], p. 278). Bolt concentrates more on the legislators who crafted the bills, rather than the meaning and impact of protection versus free trade within the Jacksonian construct. What benefit did American farmers or laborers have from higher tariffs or free trade? And how did they participate in these debates? These questions are not explored as fully as the title suggests.

Instead, the reader finds a very thorough and readable examination of tariff policy development. In chapter 1 Bolt relates the beginning of protectionist sentiment through passage of the tariff of 1816. John C. Calhoun's role in its passage becomes a point of contrast to his later vitriol against protective tariffs. …

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