When Protectionism Dominated American Politics

Roundup
tags: politics, protectionism



Marc-William Palen is a lecturer in imperial history at the University of Exeter.

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. ...




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