History Department, University of Exeter
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Cross-posted from The Globalist Magazine
How the 1888 elections decided the protectionist course of U.S. economic expansion for decades to come.
For most people alive today, Republicans have been the advocates of a free trade strategy for the United States, while the Democrats usually have sat on the fence.
The emergence of Donald Trump brings back the memory of when it was the other way around – when Republicans vehemently opposed open trade relations with the world, while Democrats advocated for free trade.
Era when Democrats were pro-free trade
The year was 1888, the tail end of Grover Cleveland’s first administration (1885-89). He was the only Democrat to hold the U.S. presidency in the half-century since the Civil War. And because of his actions, it was the tariff question that overshadowed all other economic issues that year.
The “Great Debate” of 1888 over U.S. trade policy arose after Cleveland, in his December 1887 annual message to Congress, had voiced his support for freer trade.
Cleveland’s free-trade message created political waves, both at home and upon the shores of Great Britain.
For their part, American free traders felt that their faith in Cleveland had been vindicated. The New York Reform Club, created “under the auspices” of the New York Free Trade Club, distributed 926,000 copies of the message.
And outspoken free trader and labor advocate Henry George described the message in masculine language as “a manly, vigorous, and most effective free-trade speech,” and stumped for Cleveland’s re-election in 1888.
Free trade as transatlantic “conspiracy”
But amid an era wherein the GOP adhered strongly to economic nationalist principles, President Cleveland’s message also sparked plenty of protectionist speculation.
Fearing open market competition with Free Trade England, the world’s dominant industrial power at that time, there was talk of a transatlantic free-trade conspiracy among the Republican opposition.
Republican Senator William Frye of Maine declared that Cleveland had thrown down the free-trade gauntlet. As proof, he provided a litany of British praise for Cleveland’s message.
Fronting for Britain?
And according to the Republican National Committee, the Democrats had “let the Democratic Free-Trade cat out of the Cleveland bag, and all the Free-Trade efforts in Great Britain and America cannot get it in again.”
Republican Congressman William McKinley – a future president of the United States – charged that the Democratic Party’s 1888 attempt to lower U.S. tariffs was “a direct attempt to fasten upon this country the British policy of free foreign trade… to diminish our trade and increase their own.”
Republican campaign slogans that year included “Cleveland runs well in England” and “America for Americans – No Free Trade.”
If Cleveland had wanted the upcoming presidential election to center around the tariff debate, the protectionists proved more than willing to comply. The extra fun they got was to simultaneously twist the British lion’s tail.
The birth of America’s free-trade culture
Cleveland’s tossing of the free-trade gauntlet not only inspired charges of a British free-trade conspiracy. It also inspired some of the era’s literary giants to pick up the pen as the ideological debate spilled over into American culture.
American poet Walt Whitman thanked Cleveland “heartily… for his free-trade message.”
This was the same poet who had cried out “Great is… free-trade!” in Leaves of Grass. Whitman had also subscribed to the argument that free trade would bring prosperity and peace to the world.
That argument was famously laid out at mid-century by Victorian England’s “apostle of free trade” Richard Cobden.
The two were united in the cosmopolitan belief that a world market connected through free trade minimized international conflict, whereas protectionism exacerbated it.
In the late 1880s, Whitman became even more outspoken against protectionism, saying to a friend: “We ought to invite the world through an open door…. My God! are men always to go on clawing each other—always to go on taxing, stealing, warring…. That is what the tariff—the spirit of the tariff—means.”
Mark Twain’s 1888 conversion to free trade
The culture of free trade also manifested itself in the writing of Mark Twain.
Famed satirist Twain had been a supporter of the Republican protectionist policy up until Cleveland’s 1887 tariff message. It was at this point that Twain became a convert to free trade and gave Cleveland his endorsement.
Twain’s newfound antipathy for protectionism found outlet in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889).
In it, Twain’s protagonist, Hank Morgan of Hartford, Connecticut, awakens to find himself transported to sixth-century England.
As Hank traipses across the land, he comes across a smith by the name of Dowley. Hank and Dowley immediately begin discussing “matters of business and wages” over dinner.
The sixth-century tributary kingdom in which Dowley abides appears at first glance quite prosperous in comparison to Hank’s Hartford.
“They had the ‘protection’ system in full force here,” Hank explains, “whereas we were working along down toward free-trade, by easy stages,” a veiled reference to Cleveland’s speech and the Democrats’ proposed lower tariff bill of 1888.
The others at the Dark Age dinner table listened “hungrily” as Dowley began to question Hank on the rate of wages in Gilded Age America.
“In your country, brother,” asked Dowley, “what is the wage of a master bailiff, master hind, carter, shepherd, swineherd?”
Upon hearing Hank’s reply of a quarter cent, “the smith’s face beamed with joy…. ‘With us they are allowed the double of it!…. ‘Rah for protection—to Sheol with free-trade!’”
To which Hank, unmoved, “rigged up” his “pile-driver” to drive the smith “into the earth—drive him all in—drive him in till not even the curve of his skull should show above ground.”
Hank replies to Dowley that, while the wages in the smith’s land were indeed double those of Connecticut, late-19th-century Americans could buy goods at prices well less than half what Dowley and his countrymen paid, making the high wage argument superfluous.
Hank thought he had scored a point against the blacksmith and had “tied him hand and foot.”
But Dowley “didn’t grasp the situation at all, didn’t know he had walked into a trap… I could have shot him, from sheer vexation. With cloudy eye and a struggling intellect,” Dowley admitted he did not understand Hank’s argument. At which point their dinnertime discussion only deteriorated further.
Twain’s Hank was a literary representation of late-19th-century America’s free traders. These were men who prided themselves on their intellectual superiority and the economic soundness of their arguments.
They were, however, frustrated time and again by what they perceived as pernicious protectionist propaganda that nevertheless struck a chord in the heart of the ignorant American worker.
Twain’s extreme language hints as well at how fierce the tariff debate had become within the presidential election of 1888 – the “Great Debate” between Democratic free trade and Republican protectionism.
A referendum for protectionism?
With the 1888 presidential election centered squarely upon U.S. tariff policy, to the victor would go the spoils.
Although Cleveland won the popular vote by around 90,000, he lost the electoral college 233 to 168. As a result, the high protectionist Republican candidate, Benjamin Harrison, took the White House.
With Harrison’s electoral victory and a Republican majority in both houses of Congress, the GOP was quick to proclaim the 1888 elections to be a referendum against free trade, indelibly shaping the protectionist course of U.S. economic globalization for decades to come.
Adapted from The ‘Conspiracy’ of Free Trade: The Anglo-American Struggle over Empire and Economic Globalisation, 1846-1896 by Marc-William Palen (Cambridge University Press, Feb 9, 2016)
Cross-posted from The Globalist Magazine
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