21. “Robbers and Incendiaries: Protectionism Organizes at the Harrisburg Convention of 1827”


Abstract: Though lobbying for federal money may seem like business as usual today–with billions of dollars spent annually by companies, labor unions, and other organizations in an effort to win a piece of what has become an enormous federal pie–this was not always the case in the United States.  An all-but-forgotten event, the Harrisburg Convention of 1827, may have been one of the key historical turning points in this regard, an opening of a floodgate that would transform the role of the U.S. federal government forever.  It was in the modest Pennsylvania capital that a hundred of the North’s most influential manufacturers and public servants–backed by legislators like Henry Clay and Daniel Webster–assembled to draft a “memorial” to Congress, imploring that body to pass a protectionist bill to save their industries from what they viewed as eventual ruin. As Jonathan J. Pincus observed and Thornton and Ekelund echoed, “it is not small cohesive individual groups but larger diverse ones that are necessary in order to effectively lobby representatives and senators to obtain majority coalitions” in comprehensive legislation.  The convention would bring together this “larger diverse” group—with just such a legislative goal. Meanwhile, mostly in the South, anti-protectionist opinion continued to surge. The Harrisburg Convention of 1827 would lead to the passage of that most hated piece of protectionist legislation—the “Tariff of Abominations” of 1828–and it would do so by framing the protectionist agenda into a nationalist “cause” borne of “patriotic duty.”