Access Type

Open Access Dissertation

Date of Award

January 2013

Degree Type


Degree Name




First Advisor

Marc W. Kruman


Trade policy was a prominent economic and political issue in the United States between 1789 and 1860, culminating in the Civil War. Many historians have characterized this period as pitting mutually exclusive economic systems, an industrializing, free-labor North and a slave-based agricultural South, against one another. The traditional interpretation is that the North eagerly supported tariffs and economic protection that they provided, while the South stood in opposition. The Nullification Crisis of 1832-1833 is frequently cited as evidence that the tariff was a sectional issue and some historians go so far as to describe the tariff as a significant cause of the Civil War.

This traditional view of early American trade policy merits reconsideration. The First Industrial Revolution, rather than competing labor systems, provides the appropriate context through which antebellum trade policy ought to be viewed and understood. An examination of congressional roll call votes on important trade policy legislation, coupled with economic census data, provides compelling evidence that the tariff was national in scope, pitting economic nationalists, who supported protective principles, against liberals, who supported free trade. By the time of the Civil War, the tariff issue was clearly not demarcated by geographical region.

The debates over trade policy before the Civil War were dynamic, and highly influenced by interests and ideas. As industrialization spread throughout the United States, local economic interests were susceptible to change, which were manifested through the votes of elected legislators. Likewise, ideas played an important role, as Americans debated the respective merits of a strong national policy to serve the community-at-large through national military and economic strength versus a desire for an egalitarian approach involving minimal federal government involvement.

The American trade policy debate was sectional in nature for a brief period between 1824 and 1833. Prior to that time, trade policy was shaped by foreign relations. By 1824 the First Industrial Revolution had commenced in the United States, though it was limited to the northeastern part of the nation. Between 1824 and 1833 there were bitter debates over the tariff, caused by the industrialization had been introduced to part, but not all, of the nation. However, by the 1830s other portions of the country, including the South, began experiencing an industrialization "takeoff" process. An examination of various tariff bills in 1841 and 1842, when subjected to statistical modeling, demonstrates that the relationship between capital investment in manufactures per capita for a political unit (congressional district or state) and the trade policy voting pattern of its senators or representatives was significant. In comparison, geographical region and slave population were not significant factors.

By the time of the tariffs of 1841 and 1842, trade policy was again a national issue and it remained so up to the Civil War. Economic interests and ideas, shaped by the Industrial Revolution, were the factors that most profoundly shaped antebellum American trade policy.