Date of this Version
One of the most controversial economic issues confronting the American public during the nineteenth century was that of protection. The plea for a protective tariff had been raised as soon as the First Congress met in 1789. The issue was sharply debated off and on throughout the nineteenth century but never finally resolved. There is now a large literature relating the outcome of this issue to the economic and political interests of various involved groups.
Little effort has been made, however, to assess the impact of the tariff on economic growth, employment, and the dispersion of new technology. Nor has a close examination been made of the thought of Congressmen who participated in the tariff debates. To what extent can one characterize those debates as informed by a knowledge of economic theory? What body of theory was available for them to draw upon? In short, what was the intellectual basis as perceived and understood by the Congressmen themselves, of the tariff judgments which they made?
This paper attempts to answer those questions by scrutinizing the tariff debates of 1824 and 1894 as case studies. Is there evidence in the debates to indicate that Congressmen were perceptive to the operation of a national economy? How economically knowledgeable were they?