Scholars of US history have treated trade policy in less than enthusiastic ways. One economic historian described tariffs as “extraordinarily uninteresting things unless related to the political events which give them meaning.” While another historian said the tariff has caused “narcolepsy” among his colleagues. One piece of evidence of this sentiment is that the last comprehensive history of of US trade policy was published in the the late 19th century!
Despite the seemingly soporific qualities of the subject, Douglas Irwin
wrote a 900-page tome on trade policy. The book, Clashing over Commerce: A History of US Trade Policy
(University of Chicago Press, 2019) is remarkably erudite and surprisingly entertaining. Irwin shows how trade policy was at the heart of so many of the major crises and transitions in US history, everything from the Revolution of 1776 to the post-Cold War moment. Indeed, Irwin fashions a focus on tariffs into a new history of the republic itself.
Douglas Irwin is the John French Professor of Economics at Dartmouth and a Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Dexter Fergie is a PhD student of US and global history at Northwestern University. He is currently researching the 20th century geopolitical history of information and communications networks. He can be reached by email at email@example.com or on Twitter @DexterFergie.