Rethinking America

When Protectionism Dominated American Politics

How the 1888 elections decided the protectionist course of U.S. economic expansion for decades to come.

Credit: Wally Gobetz


  • For most people, Republicans have been the advocates of a free trade strategy for the United States.
  • Does a world market connected through free trade minimize international conflict?
  • One of the Republican campaign slogans in 1888 was "America for Americans – No Free Trade."

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.

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)

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About Marc-William Palen

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

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