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Antebellum Tariff Politics: Regional Coalitions and Shifting Economic Interests


  • Douglas A. Irwin


Throughout U.S. history, import tariffs have been put on a sustained downward path in only two instances: from the early 1830s until the Civil War and from the mid-1930s to the present. This paper analyzes the political economy of tariff reductions in the antebellum period. Tariff politics was highly sectional: the North supported high tariffs, the South favored low tariffs, and the West was a swing region. In the 1820s, a coalition between the North and West raised tariffs by exchanging votes on import duties for spending on internal improvements. President Andrew Jackson delinked these issues by vetoing several internal improvements bills. The nullification crisis led to the Compromise Tariff of 1833, which phased out tariffs above 20 percent over a 9-year period. By this time, transportation improvements gave the West access to foreign markets, giving the region a stake with the South in maintaining a low tariff equilibrium. Thus, the West's changing position on trade policy helps explain the rise and fall of tariffs over this period. (c) 2008 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.

Suggested Citation

  • Douglas A. Irwin, 2008. "Antebellum Tariff Politics: Regional Coalitions and Shifting Economic Interests," Journal of Law and Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 51(4), pages 715-741, November.
  • Handle: RePEc:ucp:jlawec:v:51:y:2008:i:4:p:715-741

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Irwin, Douglas A., 2003. "New Estimates of the Average Tariff of the United States, 1790 1820," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 63(02), pages 506-513, June.
    2. Irwin, Douglas A & Kroszner, Randall S, 1999. "Interests, Institutions, and Ideology in Securing Policy Change: The Republican Conversion to Trade Liberalization after Smoot-Hawley," Journal of Law and Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 42(2), pages 643-673, October.
    3. John Carter & David Schap, 1987. "Executive veto, legislative override, and structure-induced equilibrium," Public Choice, Springer, vol. 52(3), pages 227-244, January.
    4. James, Scott C. & Lake, David A., 1989. "The second face of hegemony: Britain's repeal of the Corn Laws and the American Walker Tariff of 1846," International Organization, Cambridge University Press, vol. 43(01), pages 1-29, December.
    5. Matthew Slaughter, 2001. "Does trade liberalization converge factor prices? Evidence from the antebellum transportation revolution," The Journal of International Trade & Economic Development, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 10(3), pages 339-362.
    6. Doulgas A. Irwin, 2003. "New Estimates of the Average Tariff of the United States, 1790-1820," NBER Working Papers 9616, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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    Cited by:

    1. Joseph Davis & Marc D. Weidenmier, 2016. "America's First Great Moderation," NBER Working Papers 21856, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.

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