Morrill and the Missing Industries: Strategic Lobbying Behavior and the Tariff, 1858–1861


A general consensus among political economists holds that tariffs are usually enacted under the influence of business lobbyists, who seek protection for their industries. Justin Morrill, author of the 1861 tariff that bears his name, explicitly denied this charge. Instead, Morrill claimed his bill was only “coldly welcomed” by manufacturers, and presented it as a “revenue” measure to restore the 1846 Walker Tariff’s rates. Though the 1861 Tariff enjoys a protectionist reputation today, historians have largely accepted Morrill’s word on lobbying, purporting the absence of industry pressure. The resulting literature is replete with contradiction regarding the tariff’s origins and purposes. Depictions of its protectionist characteristics range from “mild” to “extreme.” This article challenges the general acceptance of Morrill’s depiction by examining his correspondence with manufacturing interests. Far from being absent, manufacturers from dozens of industries collaborated with Morrill to draft the bill’s tariff schedule and obtain favorable levels of protection. The Morrill Tariff’s ad valorem equivalent rates are calculated from customs records, thereby facilitating a stronger assessment of its protective character. Though some tariff rate increases, particularly on luxury items, were clearly intended to augment federal revenue, the law imposed protective rates on many import-competing goods well beyond their 1846 levels. Protectionism was typically applied to products where documented lobbyist influence was strong, such as iron and its manufactures, glass, refined sugar, and certain woolens and cloth goods. Morrill’s depiction of his tariff should accordingly be interpreted as a political argument to advance the bill rather than an accurate recounting of its legislative origins.