- The Triumph of the Antebellum Free Trade Movement by William S. Belko
Free trade, Protectionism, Tariffs, Nullification, U.S. Constitution
The Triumph of the Antebellum Free Trade Movement is mistitled. The word triumph refers to a great victory, a conquest, or at least a signal achievement. A book proclaiming the triumph of free trade implies the vanquishing of its foe—protectionism. Alas, the story told by William S. Belko is more modest and merely recounts the brief coalescing of free-trade forces at a convention in 1831. That convention does not represent a great victory or a conquest. It was not even a signal achievement, though Belko might think so. Instead it was another stopping point in a long and bitter, albeit important, debate over the tariff that dominated much of antebellum politics.
The tariff, and the contest between the forces of free trade and protectionism, remains understudied. Indeed there is no modern survey of the subject. Yet, except perhaps for slavery, it was the most important political issue before the Civil War. Only after the War of 1812 did the idea of a tariff to protect the beginnings of American industry take hold. In 1816, Congress passed a protective tariff, which it increased in 1824 and increased further in the so-called tariff of abominations in 1828. This last measure precipitated the nullification crisis and the lowering of the tariff in 1832 by Jacksonian Democrats who had opposed a protective tariff anyway. In 1833, the Democrats passed another tariff that gradually reduced rates further. Facing decreasing revenue and interested in protectionism, the Whig Party raised the tariff in 1842, but when the Democrats returned to power they lowered it in 1846. The Democrats pushed the tariff even lower in 1857, but during the Civil War tariffs were again increased. And so it went, up, down, down, up, depending on which political group gained power. Absent in this brief and simplified outline was the near constant debate, any number of protectionist and free-trade [End Page 597] gatherings, and an outpouring of words in pamphlets and newspapers that staggers the imagination.
Where, then, does the Free Trade Convention of 1831 fit into this saga? It does not represent a triumph or a major victory in an ongoing war. Instead it was a single moment in a much longer campaign, when free-trade forces from across the nation almost united. Belko makes much of this supposed unity, writing that it "was their most significant achievement and contribution to the cause of free trade" (66). However, this success was obtained by finessing the questioning of the constitutionality of a protective tariff, a development that left many free traders unhappy and led to an abrupt adjournment. If diehard free traders, especially from the deep South, were dissatisfied with this outcome, they became even more distraught over the official memorial. After the convention an aged Albert Gallatin hijacked the writing of the memorial and sidestepped the constitutional issue concerning protectionism by merely stating "that the tariff system is believed to be unconstitutional by a numerous and respectable portion of the American people, including, probably, a majority of the people of the southern States." This hemming and hawing convinced William Harper of South Carolina and Thomas Dew of Virginia to offer an addendum to the memorial insisting that for southerners "there is near unanimity of opinion with respect to the unconstitutionality of the protecting system."1 Other southerners were less circumspect. John C. Calhoun exclaimed that Gallatin had "betrayed the South" and that the southern states had to act for themselves—nullification—to demonstrate their opposition to the tariff.2
Although Belko spends almost thirty pages summarizing Dew's ideas on free trade, he minimizes this opposition. Instead, he goes on to claim that Gallatin's memorial "provided the nation with an acceptable, balanced exposition covering the essential ingredients of the America brand of free trade" (136). Additionally, Belko believes that the memorial informed the anti-tariff arguments from that point forward and provided the...