The Republican Party/Chapter XI

CHAPTER XI

TARIFF CONTROVERSIES

The administration of Garfield and Arthur, from 1881 to 1885, was marked with comparatively little party rivalry, but the important laws enacted were Republican measures, and were often passed by that party in the face of strong Democratic opposition. For example, the Civil Service Reform bill, which became law on January 16, 1883 and which fully established the merit system in the public service on its present foundation, although it bore the name of a Democratic statesman, was supported chiefly by Republicans and was opposed by practically none but Democrats. Thus in the Senate all the five votes against it were cast by Democrats, while in the House 101 Republicans, 49 Democrats and 5 Independents voted for it, and only 7 Republicans but 39 Democrats and one Independent against it. There were enacted by the Republican government, also, laws for the suppression of polygamy and for the regulation of Chinese immigration.

The Presidential campaign of 1884 was participated in by the usual number of ephemeral minor parties. There were two Prohibition conventions, a Greenback convention, an Anti-Monopoly convention, and an Equal Rights or Woman Suffrage convention which nominated Mrs. Belva A. Lockwood for the presidency. The Democratic convention nominated Grover Cleveland of New York and Thomas A. Hendricks of Indiana, on a platform devoted largely to denunciation of the Republican party but also to the adoption of many of its policies. On the question of the tariff it was verbosely non-commital. The Republican convention nominated James G. Blaine of Maine for President and John A. Logan of Illinois for Vice-President. Its platform was eminently explicit and progressive. It took strong ground for Federal regulation of interstate commerce, a national bureau of labor, the eight hour law, civil service reform, restriction of Chinese immigration, forfeiture of lapsed land grants and reservation of public lands for actual settlers, maintenance of the Monroe doctrine and restoration of the American navy and commercial marine. The salient plank was, however, that relating to the tariff which denounced the Democratic “tariff for revenue only” doctrine and demanded that “in raising the requisite revenues for the government, duties shall be so levied as to afford security to our diversified industries and protection to the rights and wages of the laborer, to the end that active and intelligent labor, as well as capital, may have its just reward, and the laboring man his full share in the national prosperity.”

The campaign was marked with much animation and energy, but unfortunately on both sides with regrettable personalities. A local quarrel in the Republican party in the State of New York caused some disaffection and the result was that the Democrats carried that State by an insignificant plurality, and thus won the election, securing the Presidency for the first time since the Buchanan administration of 1857–61. The Republicans secured 182 electoral and polled 4,851,981 popular votes; the Democrats 219 electoral and 4,874,986 popular votes; the Greenback and Anti-Monopoly parties together polled 175,370 votes, and the Prohibitionists 150,369 votes.

During this Democratic administration the Senate remained Republican by a small majority while the House was strongly Democratic. There was thus no opportunity for partisan legislation. The House in 1888 passed a bill abolishing or reducing many duties but retaining high protection on sugar, rice and other articles in which Democratic states were interested; but it was rejected by the Senate. The incident served, however, to assist in making the tariff the foremost issue in the next Presidential campaign in 1888. President Cleveland in 1887 devoted his annual message entirely to a plea for revision of the tariff in the direction of free trade and the Republicans promptly responded to the challenge. In their platform in 1888 the Democrats inveighed at great length against the Republican policy and recommended the enactment of the tariff bill then pending in Congress which, as already stated, the Senate rejected. They renominated Mr. Cleveland for President with Allen G. Thurman of Ohio for Vice-President.

The Republican convention adopted an aggressively protectionist platform, saying: “We are, uncompromisingly in favor of the American system of protection. We protest against its destruction as proposed by the President and his party. … We favor the repeal of internal taxes rather than the surrender of any part of our protective system at the joint behests of the whiskey trusts and the agents of foreign manufacturers.” It also condemned all combinations of capital, organized as trusts or otherwise, for the arbitrary control of trade and recommended legislation to prevent such schemes. Upon this platform it nominated Benjamin Harrison of Indiana for President and Levi P. Morton of New York for Vice-President.

Conventions were also held by the Prohibition, Union Labor, United Labor, American and Equal Rights parties and candidates were nominated by them. But all the interest of the campaign centered upon the tariff fight between the Republicans and Democrats. That question was paramount in the candidates' letters of acceptance, and in the speech making and the press. The result was a sweeping Republican victory. The Democrats carried the solid South, Connecticut and New Jersey with 168 electoral and 5,540,329 popular votes. The Republicans carried all the other states with 233 electoral and 5,439,853 popular votes. The Prohibitionists polled 249,506 votes, the Union Labor 146,935, the United Labor 2,418, and the American party 1,591. The Republicans retained control of the Senate and secured the House by a substantial majority. But the second House in that administration, elected in 1900, was overwhelmingly won by the Democrats.

With the accession of the Harrison administration the Republican majority in Congress, under the leadership of William McKinley, promptly proceeded to make a radical revision of the tariff and to adopt a new schedule frankly protectionist for the sake of protection. The result was the so-called McKinley tariff of 1890. This noteworthy measure placed sugar and other important articles on the free list, established a system of reciprocity in trade with various countries in South America and Europe, levied high duties on foreign goods which competed with American products, and greatly stimulated some important American industries. Widespread strikes at Homestead, Penn. and elsewhere, however, and the rise of the “Populist” party in the West drew away many voters temporarily from the Republican party so that it suffered defeat in the Congressional elections of 1890, though of course the new tariff remained in force.

In 1892 the Republicans renominated President Harrison with Whitelaw Reid of New York for Vice-President on a platform which reaffirmed the principle of protection, holding that “all articles which cannot be produced in the United States, except luxuries, should be admitted free of duty and that upon all imports coming into competition with the products of American labor there should be levied duties equal to the difference between wages abroad and at home.” It also approved the policy of reciprocity. It also advocated the establishment of a general system of free delivery of mails, in country as well as in city. The Democratic convention again nominated Mr. Cleveland with Adlai E. Stevenson of Illinois for Vice-President on a platform denouncing the protective tariff as a fraud and demanding a tariff for revenue only. Conventions were held and candidates were nominated by the Populist, Prohibition and Socialist-Labor parties, and the Farmers' Alliance adopted a platform but named no candidates. Because of the conditions already mentioned as prevailing in 1890 the Democrats won a sweeping victory. The Democrats secured 277 electoral and 5,556,928 popular votes; the Republicans 145 electoral and 5,176,106 popular votes; the Populists 22 electoral and 1,041,021 popular votes; the Prohibitionists 262,034, and the Socialist-Labor party 21,164 votes. The Democrats secured control of the Senate, also of the House by a large majority, and thus for two years had full control of the government in all branches for the first time since the years before the Civil War. But two years later, in 1894, the Republicans regained, by a still larger majority, control of the House and also won a plurality of the Senate.

Having thus complete control of the government in 1893 the Democrats set about revising the tariff and the result was described by their own President as one of “perfidy and dishonor." The Wilson-Gorman tariff, as it was known, was not at all a “tariff for revenue only” but was almost as much a protectionist measure as the one which it supplanted; only the duties were so shifted as to favor the industries of Democratic states. In addition it imposed an income tax which was declared unconstitutional. This measure was so objectionable to President Cleveland that he refused to sign it and let it become law without his approval. Its effects upon the industry and trade of the country were decidedly unfavorable and, coupled with the financial panic and business depression which had set in soon after the accession of the Democrats to power, it contributed largely to the political landslide which, beginning in 1894 and culminating in 1896, returned the Republican party to complete control of the government in all its branches for many years.

Bad as the Wilson-Gorman tariff was, however, it practically marked the decline if not the close of the tariff controversy between the two parties, in what was virtually—though of course not so admitted at the time—a surrender by the Democrats to the Republican principle of a protective tariff. Thereafter the only questions were the amount of protection needed and the industries to which it should be extended. Having themselves enacted a protective tariff in 1894 the Democrats in their national platform of 1896 demanded that it should be left undisturbed, and while declaring the obvious truism that “tariff duties should be levied for purposes of revenue”—which of course nobody ever disputed—they were careful to omit the word “only” which they had thither to inserted. Upon that platform, the salient feature of which was something other than the tariff, they nominated William J. Bryan of Nebraska for President and Arthur Sewall of Maine for Vice-President.

The Republicans in their platform strongly reaffirmed the principle of a tariff so adjusted as to afford protection to American industrial development. They condemned the existing Democratic tariff for its sectional character. Then they wisely closed the Controversy by declaring that they were not pledged to any particular schedules; that the question of rates was a practical question, to be governed by the conditions of time and of production; and thus implied that the amount of protection afforded was to be determined by the need of it. They also strongly approved the policy of reciprocity as going hand in hand with protection. Upon this platform they nominated William McKinley of Ohio for President and Garret A. Hobart of New Jersey for Vice-President.

The Populist, or People's party, nominated Mr. Bryan for President and Thomas E. Watson of Georgia for Vice-President. The Silver party ratified the Democratic nominations. A “National Democratic” convention, composed of Democrats who split from their party on the question of the monetary standard, nominated John M. Palmer of Illinois and Simon B. Buckner of Kentucky. There were also conventions and nominations by the Prohibitionists; by the National party which had split from the Prohibitionists, and by the Socialist-Labor party. The campaign was fought with extraordinary zeal and spirit, almost exclusively on the monetary issue, and resulted in a great Republican victory. That party had 271 electoral and 7,107,304 popular votes; the Democrats had 176 electoral and 6,287,352 popular votes; the Populists polled 245,728 votes, the Prohibitionists 130,753, the National party 13,955, the Socialist Labor party 33,545 and the National Democratic party 133,542. These figures, reported in each quadrennium, suggest the insignificance and futility of such party organizations. The Republicans secured a strong majority in Congress, which was repeated in the next Congress, elected in 1898.

Resuming full control of the government in 1897, the Republicans proceeded promptly to the enactment of a new protective tariff, known by the name of its chief author Nelson Dingley. This was a considerably modified version of the former McKinley tariff, adapted to the altered conditions of the country and so judiciously devised as to give general satisfaction and to suffer no demand for revision for many years. The Democratic platform in 1900 denounced it in general terms and called for an enlargement of the free list as a means of combatting trusts, but abandoned the old cry of “tariff for revenue only” and obviously treated the issue as of only minor importance. On this platform they renominated Mr. Bryan, with Adlai E. Stevenson for Vice-President.

The Republicans in 1900 reaffirmed the policies of protection and reciprocity, but treated them as accomplished facts no longer open to political controversy and no longer leading issues of the campaign. They renominated President McKinley, with Theodore Roosevelt of New York for Vice-President. The People's Party ratified the Democratic nominations. Tickets were also put forward by the “Middle-of the-Road” People's party, the Silver Republicans, the Prohibitionists, the Socialist-Labor party, the Social Democratic Party of the United States, the Social Democratic Party of America, the Union Reform party and the United Christian party. The Republicans won with 292 electoral and 7,207,386 popular votes; the Democrats got 155 electoral and 6,358,076 popular votes; the Prohibitionists got 207,174 votes; the Social Democrats 94,173; the “Middle-of-the-Road” party 49,787; the Socialist-Labor 33,319; the Union Reform 5,968; and the United Christian 1,059 votes. The votes of the People's party and the Silver Republicans are included in the Democratic total.

In almost the last words uttered by him before his assassination President McKinley indicated the progressive and enlightened future policy of the Republican party in respect to the tariff; Protection was to be maintained. Reciprocity was to be encouraged and extended. “The period of exclusiveness is past,” he said. “The expansion of our trade and commerce is the pressing problem. Commercial wars are unprofitable. If perchance some of our tariffs are no longer needed for revenue or to encourage and protect our industries at home, why should they not be employed to extend and promote our markets abroad?" That statesmanlike utterance embodied and expressed the logical culmination of the principles and policies of the Republican party for the preceding forty years; and the future policy from which neither party would venture to depart. There was no further revision of the tariff until 1909, when the Payne-Aldrich bill was enacted by a Republican government; practically a mere readjustment of the Dingley law to meet changed industrial and commercial conditions.

An attempt was made in 1912 to inject the tariff controversy into politics, when the Democrats in their platform again demanded a tariff for revenue only, on the ground that a protective tariff was unconstitutional—an absurd contention, the constitutionality of a protective tariff being all but universally conceded. But when they gained control of the government in that election, and President Wilson called Congress together in special session in April, 1913 for the purpose of enacting a “revenue tariff,” the resulting measure proved to be a hybrid somewhat resembling the former Democratic tariff of 1894. It certainly was not a “revenue tariff” because it did not produce the needed revenue and it failed to tax various articles which might have yielded a large revenue; while on the other hand it retained some decidedly protective features. The average rate of duties imposed was about 28 per cent.

Finally, in their platform of 1916 the Democrats practically conceded the Republican principle by confessing that “tariff rates are necessarily subject to change to meet changing conditions in the world's production and trade.” The Republican platform of the same year once more affirmed the principle of a protective tariff, adjusted to circumstances and calculated at once to give reasonable protection to American labor and to prevent undue ex actions by monopolies or trusts. Both parties favored the Republican policy of a tariff commission to secure information and suggest to Congress a tariff schedule based on scientific principles. With these utterances the triumph of the Republican theory of tariff legislation may be regarded as complete.