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Postbellum Protection and Commissioner Wells's Conversion to Free Trade


  • Stephen Meardon

    (Williams College)


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.

Suggested Citation

  • Stephen Meardon, 2005. "Postbellum Protection and Commissioner Wells's Conversion to Free Trade," Method and Hist of Econ Thought 0512001, University Library of Munich, Germany.
  • Handle: RePEc:wpa:wuwpmh:0512001
    Note: Type of Document - pdf; pages: 78

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Michael Perelman, 1995. "Retrospectives: Schumpeter, David Wells, and Creative Destruction," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 9(3), pages 189-197, Summer.
    2. 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.
    3. 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.
    4. 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.
    5. repec:cup:jechis:v:61:y:2002:i:03:p:777-798_03 is not listed on IDEAS
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    More about this item


    Wells; David Ames; Atkinson; Edward; free trade; revenue commission; effective protection; net protection;

    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

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