The battle over the trade bill may seem bitter this year,
but it is a love fest compared with our forefathers' tariff
fights. Trade disputes planted the seeds of two wars and
repeatedly turned 19th-century politics into a barroom brawl.
Unfortunately, the defenders of free trade were far more
eloquent in the past than they are today.
Few people realize that restrictive trade policies were a
major cause of the American Revolution. In 1750, Britain
prohibited Americans from erecting any mill for rolling or
slitting iron; William Pitt exclaimed, "It is forbidden to
make even a nail for a horseshoe." The Declaration of
Indpendence denounced King George for "cutting off our trade
with all parts of the world."
In 1789, the new Congress passed its first tariff --
mainly to raise revenue, but also to temporarily protect
"infant industries." Criticism of the protectionist tariffs
was muted because the tariffs were scheduled to expire in
In 1821, a congressional Committee on Manufactures
released a report asserting "that commerce is exporting, not
importing," and "the excess of exports over imports is the
rate of profit" -- the same gems of logic that inspire
John Taylor, a senator from Virginia, in a fiery reply to
the congressional report entitled "Tyranny Unmasked," wrote:
"All monopolies and exclusive privileges [for protecting
domestic manufacturers] have succeeded by using the same
argument. It is invariably condensed in the single word
'reciprocity'. . . . It would be exactly the case of a
pacific war, in which the nations should make laws that
neither should attack the other, but that each should shed at
home a reciprocal portion of its own blood."
In 1827, a Committee of the Citizens of Boston warned,
"Let it never be forgotten, that the question . . . is not so
much what may be beneficial to manufacturers, as whether
government has a right to benefit these, to the manifest
injury both of the agricultural and commercial classes."
In 1828, Congress passed the "Tariff of Abominations"
crushing, heavy tariff that explicitly sacrificed one part of
the country to another part -- and set the South on fire.
Northern manufacturers got almost all the benefits of
protection, while Southern farmers were forced to pay higher
prices for comparatively inferior American products and lost
their cotton export markets because of foreign retaliation
against the U.S.
In 1832, Congress upped the tariff still higher. South
Carolina declared the new tariff unconstitutional and thereby
null -- and busied itself buying cannon and signing up
volunteers to defend its state's rights. Congress backed down
and lowered the tariffs, but the tariff battle bitterly
alienated the North and South and paved the way for the Civil
To finance the Civil War, the Republican Party imposed
heavy tariffs -- and then kept the tariffs after the war to
protect domestic industry. As Joseph S. Moore of the Council
for Tariff Reform proclaimed in 1877, "Is it not a shame and
an outrage -- I may say a crime -- that a fever-sick family
should have to pay a tax on their medicines to three or four
people who are already millionaires?"
Rep. Frank H. Hurd declared in 1881, "It is beyond the
sphere of true governmental power to tax one man to help the
business of another. . . . This is robbery, nothing more nor
William G. Sumner, a Yale professor, proclaimed, "The
protectionist, instead of creating a new industry, has simply
taken one industry and set it as a parasite to live upon
another." And popular writer Henry George observed: "What are
really infant industries have no more chance in the struggle
for government encouragement than infant pigs have with
full-grown swine about a meal tub. . . . To introduce a
tariff bill into Congress is like throwing a banana into a
cage of monkeys. No sooner is it proposed to protect one
industry than all industries begin to screech and scramble
Nowadays, free traders are accused of being Japanese
apologists, whereas in the previous century they were known
to be "secret agents of British influence." Nowadays,
American workers must be "protected" against Third World
starvation pay scales, while a hundred years ago the great
danger was "the pauper labor of Europe." Then, protectionists
talked about "fair trade," "reciprocity" and countervailing
penalties; nowadays . . . . Progress is a wonderful thing.
Mr. Bovard has assaulted government profligacy in previous