- Lobbyists and the Making of US Tariff Policy, 1816–1861 by Daniel Peart
By Daniel Peart. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018. Pp. 344. Cloth, $69.95.)
Little is known about lobbying and the emergence of lobbyists in Washington, D.C., in the early republic and the antebellum era. This scarcity of knowledge is hardly surprising, as evidence is scattered and piecemeal, spread out among many different interests and topics, at a time when Congress met for only three months a year. The rare studies have mostly been keyed to specific moments and topics. So Daniel Peart's latest book is a welcome look at the work of lobbyists and at the ways they inserted themselves into the legislative process to influence its outcome.
To provide this glimpse, Peart decides to focus on one issue: the tariff. Here again, it can be surprising that something so central to early American economic development, and to the formation of early political parties, has been relatively neglected by historians, but most existing studies are old—though the renewed interest in political economy might be changing this. Choosing the tariff is a smart move on Peart's part: the issue ran from the early days of the republic through to the New Deal era; it pitted stark opposing views of the role of the federal government since the days of Jefferson and Hamilton against each other; but it also involved very substantial economic interests with a lot to gain in legislation, and the technicalities of drafting such legislation were complex enough that the devil—and the lobbyist—could hide in its proverbial details. When there is money to be made, there is money to be profitably spent.
And so it seemed from 1816 to 1861. In each chapter focusing on the lobbying and legislative history of a different tariff bill, Peart describes in sharp, sometimes juicy details the efforts by protectionists and manufacturing interests to get or enhance a protective tariff, as well as the parliamentary intrigue and backdoor negotiations involved in passing each bill. And from chapter to chapter, he uncovers increasingly sophisticated efforts to obtain favorable legislation, mostly spearheaded by enterprising manufacturers. From the dispatch of a couple of envoys to the halls of Congress in 1816, efforts diversified into pamphlet campaigns, national [End Page 107] conventions, petition drives, and multiple trips to Washington by manufacturers and their representatives, who would wine and dine key congressmen, meet with other influential figures, and make favorable arrangements with politicians, including making loans or offering direct bribes. By the 1850s, professional lobbyists had appeared, while corruption scandals erupted.
Lobbying efforts related to tariffs thus clearly changed scale in those four decades, and their sophistication grew. Moreover, it was often hard to distinguish between open advocacy of policies and backdoor intrigue to get tariff bills passed. It seems obvious that no ethical code held fast in the halls of Congress on this question of legitimate influence, even though the trend, according to Peart, was toward wider acceptance, in spite of periodic protests against it. It is harder, however, to assess the success of tariff lobbying throughout that period, in large part because the very nature of his sources means Peart can marshal only partial, and mostly one-sided, evidence, despite wide-ranging and imaginative archival diggings. He does uncover specific examples of direct influence of lobbyists on legislation. Those examples mostly involve the inclusion of favorable technical measures into a bill, ones that required expertise both to devise and understand—expertise that most lawmakers lacked. It is harder to see if lobbyists could really make or break a law: a lot of the political intrigue Peart narrates, sometimes with relish, was led by politicians whose favors to generous manufacturers were only one of many considerations, including party, section, and reelection. Many were clearly happy to take advice from protectionist lobbyists, but their calculations were often broader.
This is, perhaps, the main limit to Peart's approach to political history. By firmly anchoring his point of view within what is called today the "Washington bubble," and keeping a narrow focus on the...