Professor pens book about American tariffs


Photo by: Kyle Graham

Associate Professor of History William Bolt publishes his first book, “Tariff Wars and the Politics of Jacksonian America.”

Catherine Hyman, Assistant Editor

Dr. William Bolt, associate professor of history at FMU, recently published a book titled “Tariff Wars and the Politics of Jacksonian America.”

Bolt said his book was released on Aug. 15 as the result of over 10 years of research and work. In the book, Bolt looked at the tariff and its effects from the year 1816 to the year 1861, focusing on when new tariffs were introduced in congress.

According to Bolt, the topic of tariffs is one that was neglected for over 100 years. He said this is likely because the topic appears dull but that it is in fact interesting to study. He said people at the time were passionate about the issue.

“When someone found out that John C. Calhoun or Henry Clay was going to speak on the tariff, all of Washington would shut down,” Bolt said. “Guys fought duels, throwing hands and fists on the floor of Congress. It turned out to be a very intriguing and engaging topic, after all.”

Bolt said his book began as a research paper during his college years and was later the topic of his dissertation. For the book, however, Bolt said he worked extensively on furthering his research.

“I looked at over 100 newspapers and many personal papers and I did research in North Carolina, Tennessee, New York and South Carolina,” Bolt said. “I don’t mind if someone says my interpretation is wrong or it’s a boring book, but I don’t want someone to say the research isn’t there.”

Bolt said the majority of the federal income at the time came from the tariff, a tax on imported goods. He said the tariff was an important political issue because people were well-informed about it. According to Bolt, there was strong tension between those who wanted a high tariff and those who wanted a low tariff.

“Most Americans knew how a tariff functioned, though some wanted it to be high and some low,” Bolt said. “It nearly led to a civil war. The state of South Carolina did not like the high tariff and talked about seceding from the Union over the tariff.”

According to Bolt, the reason people were passionate about the issue due to its effects on jobs and taxes. He said a high tariff protected American jobs, while a low tariff allows for free trade, driving prices down.

Bolt said the topic was important in this time because South Carolina was concerned with the rights of states.

“The state of South Carolina led the way, and they argued that a federal law could be nullified if they think it’s unconstitutional,” Bolt said. “They thought protective tariffs violated the Constitution.”

Bolt also said President Andrew Jackson threatened to bring the military to the state. It is because of these factors that the concern about tariffs became so polarizing, according to Bolt.

According to Bolt, the fact that the tariff helped spread democracy was the most interesting aspect of the book. Bolt said it drew people into the democratic process because of the fear of losing jobs.

“It draws more people into the political process, so when Congress was going to debate a tariff, people sent petitions with hundreds or thousands of signatures,” Bolt said. “The joke was, ‘the tables are groaning under the weight of all these petitions.’ They wrote these because they thought it was the end of the world and would kill their jobs.”

Bolt said after completing his research on the subject, he is in favor of lower tariffs but is sympathetic to those who disagree.

“I’m from Buffalo, New York and like most belt states, you see old factories that are decaying,” Bolt said. “The steel factory hasn’t been used in 30 years, and they often said the low tariffs helped kill off the industrial sector in our part of the country. So I’m sympathetic, but I think getting the United States in a trade war right now is not in our best interest.”

According to Bolt, discussion of the tariff has been on the rise since Donald Trump became president, but he decided not to make the connection between historical discussion and current events.

“Donald Trump comes around and starts talking more about all the free trade agreements, but I didn’t make that link explicit,” Bolt said. “I’m happy he’s talking about tariffs; it’s good for business. We are trying to get a copy of my book in his hands because we figured he’d tweet about it, and that would sell more books.”