IDEAS home Printed from
   My bibliography  Save this article

Postbellum Protection and Commissioner Wells's Conversion to Free Trade


  • Stephen Meardon


A moment of consequence to the postbellum U.S. tariff debate was the 'conversion' of David Ames Wells, Commissioner of the Revenue from 1865- 1870, to free trade. When he began his work Wells was a disciple of the eminent American protectionist Henry C. Carey. By the age of forty, however, he had become America's answer to Britain's Sir Robert Peel: a public figure of tremendous influence, who, having changed his mind on the issue, became the standard-bearer for free trade in both the intellectual and political arenas. Half a century and more in the past, when Wells's name was better remembered in American economic and political history, several stories were told of the causes of his conversion: some attributed it ultimately to the force of ideas, some to interests. My purpose is to demonstrate that the unacknowledged but most important cause was Wells's relationship with Edward Atkinson, and Wells and Atkinson's mutual wish to grant effective protection, or net protection, to cotton manufacturers. The story of Wells's conversion that unfolds in the demonstration is not one that disentangles and assigns weights to the contributions of theory and interests. It shows instead how each determined the other.
(This abstract was borrowed from another version of this item.)

Suggested Citation

  • Stephen Meardon, 2007. "Postbellum Protection and Commissioner Wells's Conversion to Free Trade," History of Political Economy, Duke University Press, vol. 39(4), pages 571-604, Winter.
  • Handle: RePEc:hop:hopeec:v:39:y:2007:i:4:p:571-604

    Download full text from publisher

    File URL:
    File Function: link to full text
    Download Restriction: Access to full text is restricted to subscribers.

    As the access to this document is restricted, you may want to look for a different version below or search for a different version of it.

    Other versions of this item:

    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Irwin, Douglas A. & Temin, Peter, 2001. "The Antebellum Tariff On Cotton Textiles Revisited," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 61(3), pages 777-798, September.
    2. repec:cup:jechis:v:61:y:2002:i:03:p:777-798_03 is not listed on IDEAS
    3. Michael Perelman, 1995. "Retrospectives: Schumpeter, David Wells, and Creative Destruction," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 9(3), pages 189-197, Summer.
    4. Douglas A. Irwin, 1989. "Political Economy And Peel'S Repeal Of The Corn Laws," Economics and Politics, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 1(1), pages 41-59, March.
    5. Stephen Meardon, 2005. "How TRIPs Got Legs: Copyright, Trade Policy, and the Role of Government in Nineteenth-Century American Economic Thought," History of Political Economy, Duke University Press, vol. 37(5), pages 145-174, Supplemen.
    Full references (including those not matched with items on IDEAS)

    Most related items

    These are the items that most often cite the same works as this one and are cited by the same works as this one.
    1. Tena-Junguito, Antonio & Lampe, Markus & Fernandes, Felipe Tã‚Mega, 2012. "How Much Trade Liberalization Was There in the World Before and After Cobden-Chevalier?," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 72(3), pages 708-740, August.
    2. K. H. O'Rourke & R. Sinnott, 2001. "The Determinants of Individual Trade Policy Preferences: International Survey Evidence," Trinity Economics Papers 200110, Trinity College Dublin, Department of Economics.
    3. Ulaş Karakoç, 2018. "Industrial growth in interwar Egypt: first estimates, new insights," European Review of Economic History, Oxford University Press, vol. 22(1), pages 53-72.
    4. Harris, Richard & Keay, Ian & Lewis, Frank, 2015. "Protecting infant industries: Canadian manufacturing and the national policy, 1870–1913," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 56(C), pages 15-31.
    5. Saito, Tetsuya, 2006. "Shipping the Good Apples Out: Alchian-Allen Theorem of Various Qualities," MPRA Paper 883, University Library of Munich, Germany, revised 20 Nov 2006.
    6. Hillman, Arye L., 2003. "Trade Liberalization and Globalization: A Survey," CEPR Discussion Papers 3845, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
    7. Allen, Robert C., 2014. "American Exceptionalism as a Problem in Global History," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 74(2), pages 309-350, June.
    8. Mukand, Sharun W. & Rodrik, Dani, 2018. "The Political Economy of Ideas," The Warwick Economics Research Paper Series (TWERPS) 1163, University of Warwick, Department of Economics.
    9. repec:spo:wpecon:info:hdl:2441/670 is not listed on IDEAS
    10. Saito, Tetsuya, 2007. "Shipping the Good Apples Out: Another Proof with A Graphical Representation," MPRA Paper 1297, University Library of Munich, Germany.
    11. Réka Juhász, 2014. "Temporary Protection and Technology Adoption: Evidence from the Napoleonic Blockade," CEP Discussion Papers dp1322, Centre for Economic Performance, LSE.
    12. Accominotti, Olivier & Flandreau, Marc, 2005. "Does Bilateralism Promote Trade? Nineteenth Century Liberalization Revisited," CEPR Discussion Papers 5423, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
    13. Mukand, Sharun & Rodrik, Dani, 2018. "The Political Economy of Ideas: On Ideas versus Interests in Policymaking," CEPR Discussion Papers 12820, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
    14. Davis, Joseph H. & Irwin, Douglas A., 2008. "The antebellum U.S. iron industry: Domestic production and foreign competition," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 45(3), pages 254-269, July.
    15. Brian D. Varian, 2018. "Anglo†American trade costs during the first era of globalization: the contribution of a bilateral tariff series," Economic History Review, Economic History Society, vol. 71(1), pages 190-212, February.
    16. Juhász, Réka, 2014. "Temporary protection and technology adoption: evidence from the Napoleonic blockade," LSE Research Online Documents on Economics 60697, London School of Economics and Political Science, LSE Library.
    17. Carter, Colin A. & Chalfant, James A. & Yavapolkul, Navin & Carroll, Christine L., 2016. "International commodity trade, transport costs, and product differentiation," Journal of Commodity Markets, Elsevier, vol. 1(1), pages 65-76.
    18. Christopher Rowe, 2018. "William Huskisson And The Rhetoric Of Free Trade," Economic Affairs, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 38(2), pages 207-223, June.
    19. repec:ebl:ecbull:v:6:y:2008:i:30:p:1-12 is not listed on IDEAS
    20. Douglas A. Irwin & Joseph H. Davis, 2003. "Trade Disruptions and America's Early Industrialization," NBER Working Papers 9944, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • B1 - Schools of Economic Thought and Methodology - - History of Economic Thought through 1925
    • B31 - Schools of Economic Thought and Methodology - - History of Economic Thought: Individuals - - - Individuals
    • F13 - International Economics - - Trade - - - Trade Policy; International Trade Organizations
    • N71 - Economic History - - Economic History: Transport, International and Domestic Trade, Energy, and Other Services - - - U.S.; Canada: Pre-1913


    Access and download statistics


    All material on this site has been provided by the respective publishers and authors. You can help correct errors and omissions. When requesting a correction, please mention this item's handle: RePEc:hop:hopeec:v:39:y:2007:i:4:p:571-604. See general information about how to correct material in RePEc.

    For technical questions regarding this item, or to correct its authors, title, abstract, bibliographic or download information, contact: . General contact details of provider: .

    If you have authored this item and are not yet registered with RePEc, we encourage you to do it here. This allows to link your profile to this item. It also allows you to accept potential citations to this item that we are uncertain about.

    If CitEc recognized a bibliographic reference but did not link an item in RePEc to it, you can help with this form .

    If you know of missing items citing this one, you can help us creating those links by adding the relevant references in the same way as above, for each refering item. If you are a registered author of this item, you may also want to check the "citations" tab in your RePEc Author Service profile, as there may be some citations waiting for confirmation.

    For technical questions regarding this item, or to correct its authors, title, abstract, bibliographic or download information, contact: Center for the History of Political Economy Webmaster (email available below). General contact details of provider: .

    Please note that corrections may take a couple of weeks to filter through the various RePEc services.

    IDEAS is a RePEc service hosted by the Research Division of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis . RePEc uses bibliographic data supplied by the respective publishers.