Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Creating the Consuming Interest: how tariff debates shaped the American consumer, 1828-1865

On March 12th, and in the tenth contribution to the University of Glasgow’s Centre for American Studies’ 2013-2014 seminar series, Dr. Joanna Cohen of the Queen Mary University of London presented a fantastic lecture on the early American consumer and tariff debates in antebellum America.  In a compelling discussion of the emergence of dialogues on American consumerism and its moulding with questions of civic and national duty, the contested narratives that rose between the protectionist arguments of pro-tariff bodies and free-trade bodies, and the effect the Civil War had on these discourse, Dr. Cohen provided an excellent contribution to the Centre’s seminar series.

Dr. Cohen began her paper with a discussion of the rise of the consumer interest in the United States.  Prior to the antebellum United States, the term “consumer interest” was virtually one that was absent from American discussion.  Although religious and political contexts had tinged discussions of American consumption prior to the antebellum period- with prominent Christian teachings denouncing ideas of consumption, and the consumption of British goods was seen as an act of betrayal during the Revolutionary War - it was largely absent from popular discussion.  However, over the course of the 19th century ideas of a consumer interest began to emerge against the rise of federal tariffs, which raised questions over the role of the citizen and their civic duty in reinforcing economic policies.  With reference to American economist Daniel Raymond (1786–1849), Dr. Cohen framed Raymond’s own dilemma as one who both promoted unrestricted consumption versus the federal government’s need for tariffs.  Within the framework of his writings, Raymond’s focus on consumption as a means to create national wealth, rather than within discussions of agricultural control, was very unorthodox at the time.  Additionally, within a context where protectionists spoke down to consumers by lecturing that they should obey tariffs rather than question them, Raymond’s argument that a citizen’s right to consumer consumption trumped the political and economic obligations of the citizen was additionally outside of the conventions of economic debate at the time. 

Dr. Cohen continued with a discussion of southern reactions to the 1828 tariff and its unfair imposition on the southern economy.  Vast amounts of letters from southern farmers flooded the halls of Congress in protest of the tariff, and it played a significant part in the development of South Carolina’s Nullification Crisis in 1832.   However, despite southern protests, northern protectionists argued that those who criticised federal tariffs were again just not able to see the benefits of protectionism.  Protectionist arguments largely stayed the same over the next decades, with an emphasis on the higher-quality of protected goods compared to those that came from overseas.  However, they were largely ignored for a consumer market that demanded foreign goods over domestic products.  In a funny remark Dr. Cohen made during this segment of the paper, she noted that a number of American goods were retitled under French or Italian names due to the popular demand for European goods in the United States.  The rise of a consumer market more interested in consuming foreign goods than in protecting domestic goods was as Dr. Cohen noted one of the ironies of the protectionist ideologies of the time, where the promotion of the tariff helped promote a free-trade ideology.  This contesting between protectionist and free-trade ideologies initiated the use of consumer rights in popular discussion, and one that that led eventually to the promotion of consumer rights as one that was constitutionally-honed, what Dr. Cohen argued became marked as the right to consume freely.  In one example further given, she noted a letter from a consumer in the 1840s that borrowed from the constitution’s preamble when it began with “We the consumer”.  Rather than simply an economic and political dictate from the federal government, the economic obligations of the American citizen became more open to interpretation, and by the mid-1840s those interpretations had turned favourably for free-trade policies.  Although into the 1850s protectionists reiterated the importance of protecting a domestic market, economists such as Horace Greeley deplored their arguments and the imposition of economic policies such as federal tariffs as a form of economic slavery. 

Dr. Cohen directed her final section of her paper to the Morill tariff that was introduced at the beginning of the American Civil War in 1861.  The tariff’s controversial reception, both domestically and abroad, also reintroduced the protectionist position of the citizen’s economic obligations that were echoed in earlier decades.  However, this position was met with an aggressive response from the well-grounded free-trade atmosphere of the early 1860s, with House Republicans adapting the civil obligations of the protectionists into one that argued that the consumption of free-trade goods, rather than domestic goods, was the civic duty of American citizens.  It was a sentiment well-received in the north, and shortly after American retailers began to use the opportunity to advertise their goods, fusing the Republican-led ideology of supporting the Union with a free-trade doctrine.  With shop-owners reinforcing a link between free-trade consumption and the war effort, what Dr. Cohen noted was done through the proliferation of local consumer allegiances with supporting the government and questions of civic virtue, it quickly became the standard correlation of contemporary political and consumer ideologies.  Dr Cohen’s displaying of shop posters reinforced this flurry of free-trade, pro-Union advertisements.  As she additionally noted, one very distinct meeting of political and consumerist ideologies could be found in an example of one shop being transformed into a recruitment centre for the Union army.

Dr. Cohen finished her paper by reminding her audience that though free-trade policies did dominate in the latter period of her paper’s focus, the rise of free-trade consumerism from there on does not fit into a simple narrative, and in many cases would re-collide with protectionist ideals.  However, the emphasis Dr. Cohen wished to present in her paper was the fusing of civic duties to consumption that both protectionists and free-traders hoped to reinforce, what she aptly titled the democratisation of goods.  In an engaging, lucid discussion of early consumption in the antebellum United States, Dr. Cohen made a fantastic contribution to the Centre for American Studies’ 2013-14 seminar series.

In the question and answer session after Dr. Cohen’s paper she expanded her thoughts on the class-based qualities of early American consumerism.  She noted that with the 1850s being the age of the Confidence Man in America, many lower-middle or middle-class Americans began to utilise consumer goods as a way of appearing above their station.  This in turn created a tension between class elites that argued that consumerism, which was largely recognised as not class-based, should be protected all the same from such charlatanism.  In this particular example Dr. Cohen provided an excellent additional comment to an already excellent paper, presenting an early example of the malleability of consumer class in America before more prominent examples such as in the 1920s.

- By James Nixon
PGR at the University of Glasgow


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