International Labor and Working-Class History

Labor and Global Commodities

The Political Culture of Sugar Tariffs: Immigration, Race, and Empire, 1898–1930

April Merleauxa1

a1 Florida International University


This article contends that the chronology of popular and legislative movements for restrictive tariffs and immigration exclusion in the United States ran parallel courses between 1898 and the 1930. Those who spoke for and against such policies did so using the rhetoric of race, labor, and empire. The article analyzes the career of Nevada Senator Francis G. Newlands in order to show how the sugar industry and Asian immigration were intrinsic to debates over imperial policy between 1898 and the First World War. The article then describes policy changes during the First World War. The war set the stage for renewed debates over immigration and the sugar trade in the 1920s as the newly formed Tariff Commission attempted to grapple with an oversupplied world sugar market. Their work ultimately reinforced the old associations among race, labor, and trade policy and did little to improve the global sugar crisis.

April Merleaux is an Assistant Professor of History at Florida International University. Her research interests include food, migration, and empire in the United States and commodity cultures writ large. She is currently revising a book manuscript tentatively titled Sugar and Civilization: Race, Empire, and the Cultural Politics of Sweetness, 1898–1939. She received her Ph.D. in 2010 from Yale University's American Studies program.