Protectionism in the United States

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Protectionism in the United States refers to protectionist economic policy that erected tariff and other barriers to trade with other nations. This policy was most prevalent in the 19th century. It attempted to restrain imports to protect Northern industries. It was opposed by Southern states that wanted free trade to expand cotton and other agricultural exports. Protectionist measures included tariffs and quotas on imported goods, along with subsidies and other means, allegedly to ensure fair competition between imported goods and local goods. Currently the US is the most protectionist country which has introduced the most protectionist measures. According to Global Trade Alert the US has adopted nearly 800 protectionist measures since the Global Economic Crisis in 2008.[1][2][3]

Southern states

Historically, slave-holding states had little perceived need for mechanization because of the low cost of manual labor. They supplied raw cotton to Britain, which supported free trade.

Northern states

Northern states sought to develop manufacturing industries and sought protections to allow nascent Northern manufacturers to compete with their more sophisticated British competitors. Beginning with the "Report on Manufactures", by the first US Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, the United States became the leading nation opposed to free trade. The report advocated measures to help protect infant industries, including bounties (subsidies) derived in part from those tariffs. Throughout the 19th century, leading US politicians, including Senator Henry Clay, supported Hamilton's approach within the Whig Party under the name "American System."

The opposed Southern Democratic Party contested elections throughout the 1830s, 1840s and 1850s in part over the issue of protection of industry. However, Southern Democrats were never as strong in the U.S. House of Representatives as the more populous North. The Northern Whigs achieved higher protective tariffs over the South's bitter resistance. One Southern state precipitated what came to be called the nullification crisis, over the issue of tariffs, arguing that states had the right to ignore federal laws.

Mostly over the issue of abolition and other scandals, the Whigs collapsed, leaving a void which the fledgling Republican Party, led by Abraham Lincoln filled. Lincoln, who called himself a "Henry Clay tariff Whig", strongly opposed free trade. He implemented a 44% tariff during the American Civil War in part to pay for the building of the Union Pacific Railroad, the war effort and to protect American industry.[4]

By President Lincoln's term, the northern manufacturing states had ten times the GDP of the South. With this advantage, the North was able to starve the South of weapons through a near total blockade, while supplying its own army with everything from heavy artillery to Henry repeating rifles.

With the Northern victory, Republican dominance was assured. Republicans continued to dominate American politics until the early 20th century.

President Ulysses S. Grant stated:

For centuries England has relied on protection, has carried it to extremes and has obtained satisfactory results from it. There is no doubt that it is to this system that it owes its present strength. After two centuries, England has found it convenient to adopt free trade because it thinks that protection can no longer offer it anything. Very well then, Gentlemen, my knowledge of our country leads me to believe that within 200 years, when America has gotten out of protection all that it can offer, it too will adopt free trade.[5]

President William McKinley stated the United States' stance under the Republican Party as:

"Under free trade the trader is the master and the producer the slave. Protection is but the law of nature, the law of self-preservation, of self-development, of securing the highest and best destiny of the race of man. [It is said] that protection is immoral.... Why, if protection builds up and elevates 63,000,000 [the U.S. population] of people, the influence of those 63,000,000 of people elevates the rest of the world. We cannot take a step in the pathway of progress without benefiting mankind everywhere. Well, they say, 'Buy where you can buy the cheapest'.... Of course, that applies to labor as to everything else. Let me give you a maxim that is a thousand times better than that, and it is the protection maxim: 'Buy where you can pay the easiest.' And that spot of earth is where labor wins its highest rewards."[6]

Southern Democrats gradually rebuilt their party and allied themselves with Northern Progressives. They had many differences, but both opposed the corporate trusts that had emerged. This marriage of convenience to face a common enemy reinvigorated the Democratic Party, catapulting them to power.

See also