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Clashing over Commerce

A History of US Trade Policy

Should the United States be open to commerce with other countries, or should it protect domestic industries from foreign competition? This question has been the source of bitter political conflict throughout American history. Such conflict was inevitable, James Madison argued in The Federalist Papers, because trade policy involves clashing economic interests. The struggle between the winners and losers from trade has always been fierce because dollars and jobs are at stake: depending on what policy is chosen, some industries, farmers, and workers will prosper, while others will suffer.
Douglas A. Irwin’s Clashing over Commerce is the most authoritative and comprehensive history of US trade policy to date, offering a clear picture of the various economic and political forces that have shaped it. From the start, trade policy divided the nation—first when Thomas Jefferson declared an embargo on all foreign trade and then when South Carolina threatened to secede from the Union over excessive taxes on imports. The Civil War saw a shift toward protectionism, which then came under constant political attack. Then, controversy over the Smoot-Hawley tariff during the Great Depression led to a policy shift toward freer trade, involving trade agreements that eventually produced the World Trade Organization. Irwin makes sense of this turbulent history by showing how different economic interests tend to be grouped geographically, meaning that every proposed policy change found ready champions and opponents in Congress.

As the Trump administration considers making major changes to US trade policy, Irwin’s sweeping historical perspective helps illuminate the current debate. Deeply researched and rich with insight and detail, Clashing over Commerce provides valuable and enduring insights into US trade policy past and present.

832 pages | 17 halftones, 21 line drawings, 17 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2017

Markets and Governments in Economic History

Economics and Business: Business--Industry and Labor, Economics--Government Finance, Economics--History

History: American History

Political Science: Diplomacy, Foreign Policy, and International Relations


"Tells the history of American trade policy, showing that trade is neither dull nor deserving of the attacks on it. . . . As Mr Irwin spins this grand narrative, he also debunks trade-policy myths."


“Irwin outlines [the] long evolution of trade politics from the mercantilist 1640s to the present, when Trump has made trade controversial again by arguing for a renewal of protectionist policies. [His] chronicle—lengthy, detailed, and readable—traces the winding trail that has brought us to the liberal world trading order we enjoy today.”

George Melloan, Wall Street Journal

“Other histories have been written about US trade policy, but Irwin’s is the most comprehensive and useful for guiding our current decision making on trade. . . . Irwin combines scholarly analysis with a historian’s eye for trends and colorful details. This book is readable and illuminating, for the trade expert and for all Americans wanting a deeper understanding of America’s evolving role in the global economy.”

National Review

Clashing over Commerce is a magisterial book. Irwin takes readers through the long story of American trade policy with keen insight and a sense for historical significance.”

I. M. Destler, University of Maryland

“This is, without a doubt, the most comprehensive discussion of trade policy since Taussig’s immensely influential Tariff History of the United States. Irwin describes the profound evolution of American trade policy from colonial times to the present, bringing up to date with the most recent empirical research and the emergence of a broader trade policy. In its breadth and depth, Clashing over Commerce represents a major contribution.”

Jeremy Atack, Vanderbilt University

"Clashing over Commerce is a very impressive book. Besides a detailed history of trade policy, it provides a general picture of American political and economic history."


"At a time when concerns about trade wars unsettle financial markets and engage media pundits, those seeking a deeper understanding may choose to consult Irwin's hefty volume."

"At a time when Washington’s approach to trade seems poised to undergo a significant shift, this magisterial book surveys the entire history of US trade policy since the Colonial era, using congressional debates and actions to show how conflicting domestic economic interests have led Americans to clash repeatedly over trade."

Foreign Affairs, Best of Books 2018

"Irwin’s magnum opus . . . is already a classic. Given the prominent role trade is playing in politics right now, it is also very timely. At almost seven hundred pages, Clashing over Commerce looks intimidating. But once you start reading, it isn’t. Irwin tells a coherent story that spans generations, showcasing the prominent personalities in the great trade debate, their larger philosophical and economic arguments, and the legislation and policies they fought over. It hits on all levels."

Competitive Enterprise Institute, Best Books of 2018

"A talked-about economics book that amply rewards reading all 860 pages is rare. A very clear explanation of the overarching political economy of trade that frames America’s tariff history is even rarer. Irwin delivers both."

Jeffrey Frankel, Project Syndicate

Table of Contents


Part I: Revenue

1. The Struggle for Independence, 1763–1789

2. Trade Policy for the New Nation, 1789–1816

3. Sectional Conflict and Crisis, 1816–1833

4. Tariff Peace and Civil War, 1833–1865

Part II: Restriction

5. The Failure of Tariff Reform, 1865–1890

6. Protectionism Entrenched, 1890–1912

7. Policy Reversals and Drift, 1912–1928

8. The Hawley-Smoot Tariff and the Great Depression, 1928–1932

Part III: Reciprocity

9. The New Deal and Reciprocal Trade Agreements, 1932–1943

10. Creating a Multilateral Trading System, 1943–1950

11. New Order and New Stresses, 1950–1979

12. Trade Shocks and Response, 1979–1992

13. From Globalization to Polarization, 1992–2017




Economic History Association: Alice Hanson Jones Prize

Manhattan Institute for Policy Research: F.A. Hayek Book Prize

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