Antebellum Tariff Politics: Coalition Formation and Shifting Regional Interests

45 Pages Posted: 18 May 2006 Last revised: 25 Sep 2010

See all articles by Douglas A. Irwin

Douglas A. Irwin

Dartmouth College - Department of Economics; National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

Date Written: April 2006


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 how the movement toward higher tariffs in the 1820s was reversed for the rest of the antebellum period. Tariff politics in Congress during this period was highly sectional: the North supported high tariffs, the South favored low tariffs, and the West was a %u201Cswing%u201D 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 effectively delinked these issues and destroyed the North-West alliance by vetoing several internal improvements bills. South Carolina%u2019s refusal to enforce the existing high tariffs sparked the nullification crisis and paved the way for the Compromise Tariff of 1833, which promised to phase out tariffs above 20 percent over a nine year period. Although Congress could not credibly commit itself to the staged reductions or maintaining the lower duties, the growing export interests of the West %uF818 due, ironically, to transportation improvements that made agricultural shipments economically viable %uF818 gave the region a stake with the South in maintaining a low tariff equilibrium. Thus, the West%u2019s changing position on trade policy helps explain the rise and fall of tariffs over this period.

Suggested Citation

Irwin, Douglas A., Antebellum Tariff Politics: Coalition Formation and Shifting Regional Interests (April 2006). NBER Working Paper No. w12161. Available at SSRN:

Douglas A. Irwin (Contact Author)

Dartmouth College - Department of Economics ( email )

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