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Encyclopedia of Tariffs and Trade in U.S. History

Author(s):Northrup, Cynthia Clark
Turney, Elaine C. Prange
Reviewer(s):Meardon, Stephen

Published by EH.NET (January 2006)


Cynthia Clark Northrup and Elaine C. Prange Turney, editors, Encyclopedia of Tariffs and Trade in U.S. History. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2003. lvi + 1631 pp. (five volumes), $345 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-313-32789-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Stephen Meardon, Department of Economics, Williams College.

Each of the three volumes of this encyclopedia, edited by Cynthia Clark Northrup of the University of Texas at Arlington and Elaine C. Prange Turney of the University of Dallas, responds to a genuine need of researchers and students of the history of U.S. trade policy. The first volume is the encyclopedia proper: a compendium of over four hundred alphabetically-ordered entries ranging roughly from 200 to 1000 words, with a median of perhaps 300 words, and preceded by an eight-page introduction and a guide to selected topics. The several topics include commodities (under which heading twenty-one entries are classified, e.g. coal, rum, and tobacco), economic philosophy (one entry on “Economic Darwinism”), economists (seventeen entries including Bastiat, Hume, and Ra?l Prebisch), events (sixteen entries, e.g. industrial revolution and nullification), organizations (twenty-nine entries from the American Free Trade League to the Sierra Club), political parties and groups (ten entries including Democrats, Republicans, and Know-Nothings), politicians (212 entries from Alexander Hamilton to Al Gore), and tariffs (thirty-four entries including the Tariffs of 1789, 1790, 1792, and so on to Hawley-Smoot).

The second volume is a selection of momentous texts, reports, manifestos and speeches: an anthology of primary documents representing the ideas and politics that have animated U.S. trade controversies. The third volume reproduces in their entireties the thirty-one comprehensive tariff laws negotiated by Congress from 1789 to 1930, after which time revisions of the tariff were made by the executive branch.

These last two volumes are easier to evaluate, and ultimately to recommend, than the first. The content, strengths, and weaknesses of Vol. II, Debating the Issues: Selected Primary Documents, are most visible in contrast with F. W. Taussig’s old but still valuable Selected Readings in International Trade and Tariff Problems (1921). Both include excerpts from Book IV of Smith’s Wealth of Nations on the fallacies of the mercantile system and the benefits of trade; from Hamilton’s Report on Manufactures, an abiding source of inspiration to advocates of protection; and from Grover Cleveland’s 1887 State of the Union address, in which he staked his re-election the following year on tariff reform — and lost. But each includes many more readings unduplicated by the other.

Taussig’s purpose was to piece together a book that could stand on its own as a college text on international trade and tariff problems in America and Europe, so he included alongside the foregoing documents samples from (among others) Ricardo, J. S. Mill, J. E. Cairnes, and Taussig himself on international trade theory; Bastiat, Richard Sch?ller, Lujo Brentano, and Alfred Marshall on free trade versus protection; and Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and William McKinley on the protective controversy in the United States. Northrup and Turney intend their Volume II to be, unlike Taussig’s Selected Readings, a library reference book, not a course textbook, and their inquiry is best described as historical, not economic. Their geographic area of concern, too, is limited to the United States. So notwithstanding their inclusion of Smith they pass over the theorists and redouble their attention to American politicians. To Taussig’s Webster, Clay and McKinley they add speeches by Andrew Jackson, John Sherman, Benjamin Harrison, William Howard Taft, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and so on, up to the transcript of the 1993 debate between Al Gore and Ross Perot over the NAFTA.

Intellectual historians may be disappointed to see the crafters of legislation privileged to the exclusion of the crafters of their ideas. When Senator John Sherman of Ohio, speaking in advocacy of the tariff increase of 1865, explained that “although representing an interior state chiefly engaged in agriculture, yet I have always felt that the prosperity of one industry and section finally inured to the benefit of the whole nation and every part” (II., 235) and proposed therefore to discriminate in favor of home industry, he echoed Henry C. Carey. One would like to see the idea exposited also by Carey himself.

That alone does not stand as much of a criticism of the anthology: its boundaries had to be drawn somewhere, after all, and for the late nineteenth century at least one can refer to other sources, like William Barber’s (2005) excellent anthology, to fill in the theoretical gaps. On the other hand, the inclusion of the likes of Carey in addition to Sherman would have done more than consolidate the relevant material in one set of books. It would have raised the question: Why Sherman, after all? Carey’s protective doctrine was influential not only to Sherman: among Carey’s more ardent disciples were William D. (“Pig Iron”) Kelley and James G. Blaine, who were the principal standard bearers in Congress for the protective system before the ascendancy of McKinley. Their speeches are more reflective of the doctrine than is Sherman’s — as should be expected, for they were more loyal adherents to the doctrine than was Sherman, who was a relative moderate (Stanwood 1903, II, 181, 190). Some more intellectual context could have served as a check on the selection of political documents (and vice-versa). Nevertheless, given the limited scope of the volume, the well-chosen selections far outnumber the questionable ones.

Volume III, The Texts of the Tariffs, would appear at a glance to be immune to similar criticisms of omissions, at least through 1930. All of the comprehensive tariff acts prior to that year are included in it. As for the period since 1930, Northrup and Turney explain that tariff changes have been secured through bilateral and multilateral agreements negotiated by the executive and approved by Congress, rather than (as was done before) the other way round. The large number of such agreements prohibit their inclusion in the volume. Here, too, what is missing, one could argue, is the necessary, and even well-chosen, sacrifice that must be made given the space constraint.

The problem with the argument would be that even from 1789 to 1930 the executive branch negotiated numerous reciprocal trade agreements. From the immediate postbellum period to the 1890s, in particular, they were the subject of considerable controversy in U.S. tariff policy. Erstwhile Whigs and Republicans like Henry C. Carey and his prot?g?, Blaine, who deplored the Canadian reciprocity agreement of 1854, were the leading advocates of later agreements negotiated mainly (but not only) with Hawaii and the Latin American republics; Democrats by and large opposed them. Why? With no additional information, one might suppose either that Blaine and his ilk were not really as protectionist as heretofore suggested, or that they anticipated trade to be the handmaiden of U.S. investment abroad, investors the advance party for annexation by an emergent U.S. empire, and imperial growth to be worth the loss of protectionist doctrinal purity.

With some additional information — just one or two examples of the many reciprocity agreements ratified during the period, including preferably one that Blaine negotiated as Harrison’s Secretary of State and that Cleveland abrogated — one would begin to see why either one of the last two stories is incomplete. Republicans and Democrats alike understood reciprocity to serve the interests of protection, and their understanding was well founded. This important facet of nineteenth-century American tariff controversies, in which may be found the origins of the Republican turn towards trade expansion, is clouded from view by a collection of legislative acts comprising exclusively those modifying “the” tariff. And yet, having such a collection at hand, while potentially hazardous to the student of U.S. trade policy, is helpful to the researcher.

Back to Volume I, The Encyclopedia. The more than four hundred entries were written by seventy-four contributors, most of them faculty members in history departments, a few of them graduate students in history, and a few others undergraduates or independent scholars. Many of the entries concern organizations, individuals, events or things of which I knew little before picking up the encyclopedia. I profited from reading them but cannot evaluate their accuracy. Others concern things I already knew either vaguely or firmly and found to be explained extraordinarily well. In this category the entries on John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, Clay’s Compromise, the Force Act [of 1832], the Tariff of Abominations [of 1828], and Andrew Jackson written by Adrienne Caughfield, at the time of publication a Ph.D. student in history at Texas Christian University, stand out. Those by Cynthia Clark Northrup are notable for their generally high quality and also for their number: she appears to have done the heaviest lifting in Volume I, authoring by my count eighty entries.

But other entries by other authors are worryingly inaccurate or misleading. Regarding “American Farmers” the reader is told that “in 1913 the Underwood-Simmons Tariff became the first tariff since before the American Civil War to put many agricultural items of the free list while lowering others; unfortunately, this benefited the consumer, not the producer” (I, 12). The part before the semicolon is proved by Vol. III to be untrue; the part after it, depending on who is meant by “the producer,” is either obvious or false. Regarding Charles Francis Adams, the reader is told that after Adams’s supporters were outmaneuvered by those of Horace Greeley for the Liberal Republican nomination in 1872, “throughout the Gilded Age the tariff issue would only emerge as a diversionary tactic” (I, 3). At best this statement presumes “Gilded Age” to refer to a much shorter time period than is usually intended (and even then it is arguable). More accurately it is odd — and refuted by any number of people, events, and texts, e.g. the careers of authors like William Graham Sumner and politicians like Blaine, Harrison, and Cleveland, the tariff commission of 1882, the presidential election of 1888, and Joanne Reitano’s very good book (cited elsewhere in this encyclopedia) The Tariff Question in the Gilded Age: The Great Debate of 1888 (1994).

What stands out ultimately in these three volumes — the convenience of having at hand the many resources that are included in it, or the misapprehensions that could result from the exclusion of notable others? The excellent encyclopedia entries by scholars like Caughfield and the overall accomplishment of Northrup, or the smaller number of misleading entries? My reservations have not prevented me from thumbing often through the encyclopedia — particularly but not exclusively Volume III — while doing my own writing. So I will recommend it to other researchers of the history of U.S. trade policy, too. The high price will cause most to obtain it only through their institutions’ libraries.


William J. Barber, editor, 2005. The Development of the National Economy: The United States from the Civil War through the 1890s. London: Pickering and Chatto.

Joanne Reitano, 1994. The Tariff Question in the Gilded Age: The Great Debate of 1888. Pennsylvania State University Press.

Edward Stanwood, 1903. American Tariff Controversies in the Nineteenth Century (two volumes). New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Co.

Frank W. Taussig, editor, 1921. Selected Readings in International Trade and Tariff Problems. Boston: Ginn and Company

Stephen Meardon is author of “Richard Cobden’s American Quandary: Negotiating Peace, Free Trade, and Anti-Slavery” (in Anthony Howe and Simon Morgan, eds., Rethinking Nineteenth Century Liberalism: Richard Cobden Bicentenary Essays, Ashgate, forthcoming) and “How TRIPs Got Legs: Copyright, Trade Policy, and the Role of Government in Nineteenth-Century American Economic Thought,” History of Political Economy (supplement, 2005).

Subject(s):International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII