From Mercantilism to Tariffs: The American Experience of Protectionism from the Colonial Era to the Early Republic, 1750-1830

Sångsalen Session 1: The political economy of protection organized by Christopher Absell


Jeremy Land, John Moore


The history of European settlement in North America is in many ways defined by protection – protection against indigenous peoples, protection against the elements, and protectionist trade policies and regulations. This essay explores the relationship between protectionist economic policies such as mercantilism in colonial North America and protectionist tariffs passed in the early years of the United States. It first looks at how the British-American colonies developed their economies in the shadow of mercantilist rules regulating how and to whom they could trade. It will show how certain policies, rather than encouraging trade with Britain, had the opposite affect of looking for trading partners outside of the British Empire. Structural and policy issues contributing to a growing rift between colonial merchants and British policy creators. Conversely, the second half of the essay explores the realities of founding a new nation attempting to find its place within the global economy. It shows that trade tariffs were an important component of developing state capacity and finding revenue in the early stages of the young nation’s existence. Later, as manufacturing became a more important segment of the economy, national leaders turned to tariffs to protect its growing manufacturing sector. The colonies who chafed under the protectionist British state eventually created their own protectionist policies to protect its own economic interests. In both instances, however, these policies had unintended consequences for the nature and composition of trade.


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