That’s not news to Dartmouth economics professor Douglas A. Irwin, whose latest treatise on the history of U.S. trade policy documents in exquisite detail how “The Tariff” has sparked bitter political, economic, and constitutional debate and has been a persistent source of sectoral conflict from the founding of the republic to the present.
Clashing over Commerce: A History of U.S. Trade Policy was written, according to Irwin, to fill a glaring void. The last major history of U.S. trade policy to be published was the 8th edition of A Tariff History of the United States in 1931, by Frank Taussig, the famous Harvard trade economist who became the first chairman of the U.S. Tariff Commission (predecessor of the U.S. International Trade Commission) when it was created in 1916. As Irwin aptly demonstrates in Clashing, much trade policy history has transpired since 1931.
But Irwin doesn’t begin where Taussig left off. He starts in colonial times to make certain his readers understand not only that U.S. trade policy played a major role in shaping the course of U.S. history, but that the mercantilist trade policies of the British Empire—such as the Navigation Acts, which precluded direct trade between the American colonies and other countries and required all goods be channeled through England—contributed to the growing anti‐Crown fervor that eventually erupted into revolution and the birth of a nation.
In the introduction, Irwin references Federalist 10, in which James Madison notes that in every society there exist competing economic interests with contrasting views about what government policy ought to be. Alluding to what we would call the process of trade policy formulation today, Madison observed: