With eerie reflections for this year’s presidential elections, under Republican auspices, protectionism became entrenched as the economic policy of choice in the decades following the Civil War.
So when Democratic President Grover Cleveland tossed the free-trade gauntlet in his annual 1887 annual message to Congress, he not only inspired charges of a British free-trade conspiracy and Republican ire.
He also inspired some of the era’s literary giants to pick up the pen as the ideological debate spilled over into American culture.
The 1888 Great Debate over US trade policy inspired literary luminaries like Walt Whitman and Mark Twain to take sides.
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)
Mark Twain, the famed American satirist, was a free trader – true or false?
19th-century America’s free traders prided themselves on the economic soundness of their arguments.
Then, as now, was it protectionist propaganda that struck a chord in the heart of the ignorant American worker?