William L. Wilson and Tariff Reform, a Biography

By Festus P. Summers | Go to book overview

CHAPTER IV
The Tariff and the Bloody Shirt [1883-1887]

IT IS WHOLLY SUPERFLUOUS to remark at this point that the most prominent political issue of the eighties and nineties was the tariff. If the tariff question had persisted with varying fortunes since the era of Hamilton and Jefferson, it had taken on new importance with the coming of the Civil War and the triumph of nationalism in that conflict. It is true, some maintain that the tariff was an artificial issue. Populist leaders were prone to look upon the tariff contest as a sham battle and writers have since implied that it was a great national filibuster against more important issues, such as the money question and the farm problem. Few will deny that the tariff debate was sustained in part by specious and even dubious arguments; nor can it be denied that the tariff issue was central in the planning of party leaders--Democratic and Republican--who contrived to sidetrack the Populist and free silver movements. Be that as it may, the tariff question had many ramifications affecting the national life and public interest which made it an issue of transcendent importance.

Wilson entered the House of Representatives just as the Democratic party was setting its course by the rising star of tariff reform. The Republican-sponsored protective tariff was supported by an array of challenging arguments: In a vast new country like the United States a high tariff was indispensable to the very existence of infant industries and to specialization in industry; it guaranteed high wages for labor and a home market for the farmer and the manufacturer; it provided that concentration of population in cities and towns which was essential to cultural and social growth; it compensated the American producer for differences between the cost of production at home and abroad; and it stood between the American worker and the "pauper" labor of Europe and Asia. Protection, the argument ran, was necessary for the main

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