"The Grossest and Most Unjust Species of Favoritism” Competing Views of Republican Political Economy: The Tariff Debates of 1841 and 1842

Winner of the James Soltow Award for 2011

  • John A. Moore Walsh College


Historians have long examined the causes of the American Civil War. Frequently, they identify three explanatory factors: slavery, states’ rights and tariffs. This paper assesses the Tariffs of 1841 and 1842, asserting that arguments attributing the tariff as a causal factor of the Civil War are exaggerated and deserve reconsideration. Upon close examination, these tariff debates represent a continuation of a long-standing discourse as to whether American foreign trade policy should embrace free trade or protectionist characteristics. Consequently, these debates, which occurred only nineteen years before Fort Sumter, are more closely aligned with late 18th century debates over political economy than they are as a prelude cause to Civil War.