August 31, 2017

FMU History professor pens book on the high tensions of tariffs

FMU History professor pens book on the high tensions of tariffs

Machiavellian-style parliamentary procedures. Politically charged fistfights. Nationwide attention turned to congressional addresses.

Last week in Washington?

Maybe. But Dr. William Bolt will tell you it’s pre-Civil War America, too. Bolt, an associate professor of History at Francis Marion University, covers all those topics, and more, in his latest book, Tariff Wars and the Politics of Jacksonian America.

Tariff Wars is one of the first books in more than a century to deal with the historic significance of the import-export tax and its impact on the country prior to the Civil War. The topic may sound somewhat mundane, but Bolt says it was once was one of liveliest and most contentious debates in the country.

“Duels were fought over these (tariffs),” says Bolt. “Guys were having fist fights on the floor of Congress over tariffs. This was high drama.”

The issue of tariffs in the United States between the War of 1812 and the Civil War created deep divisions along partisan lines. And tariffs were vital to the nation’s interests. Prior to the advent of legislation creating the federal income tax around the turn of the 19th century, tariffs were the primary source of income for the federal government.

Typically, the representatives of the industrialized northern states sought to increase tariffs to protect the domestic industries. Conversely, representatives of agrarian southern states saw tariffs as a tool to marginalize their already dwindling economic influence.

“Tariffs were important before the Civil War because the federal government typically got 90 percent of its revenue from tariffs,” Bolt says. “This was the fuel for the nation’s economy.”

The idea of a book tariffs was not always high on Bolt’s to-do list. He was looking into other matters while preparing his dissertation at the University of Tennessee when he found himself traveling down the tariff path.

“I just sort of stumbled into it,” he says.

The momentum created by his initial research turned into 18 chapters and nearly 300 pages of exposition into the history of the tariff and how it shaped America.

Bolt postulates that tariffs forced the citizenry — both those opposed and those in favor of higher tariffs — to become more engaged in the political process.

“A common saying was, ‘I can taste the tariff in my sugar,’” Bolt says. “Washington would shut down if a (Daniel) Webster, (Henry) Clay or (John C.) Calhoun was going to give a speech on the tariff. Can you imagine nowadays? Canceling class? ‘No, I can’t come into work today. I’ve got to watch C-SPAN. Mitch McConnell is talking about the tariff.’ No. It’s a snoozer. It was very important then, though.”

Bolt has been a professor at Francis Marion University since 2009. He received his PhD. from the University of Tennessee in 2010 and has served as an assistant editor at the James K. Polk Project for the past four years.

Photo of William Bolt