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Chapter 6: the tariff question

  • Greeley's early sympathies
  • -- legislation between 1832 and 1844 -- a statement of his tariff principles -- his work for Clay in 1844 -- its effect on his health -- desire to try the issue four years later

Greeley's sympathies were always in favor of a protective tariff. He heard the hard times of his boyhood in New England attributed to the “cheapness” of English products; both the political parties in the presidential campaign of 1828, when he was an apprentice in the East Poultney office, professed devotion to protection, and speeches which he heard at a consultation of protectionists in the American Institute, which he attended while waiting for a job during his first year in New York city, strengthened his already formed convictions. But during the earlier years of his editorial work in New York and Albany the tariff was not a prominent issue. The compromise act passed in 1833 continued in force until 1842, and, although it was not operating as Clay and other of his supporters anticipated (Clay looked for its speedy amendment), it was not made a “live issue.” We find the existing tariff [111] law named in the New Yorker as one of the causes of the hard times of 1836-1837, the possibilities of silk culture in New York State set forth, and the objections of the Evening Post to a proposed State bounty of fifty cents a pound on silk produced in the State warmly combated.

The compromise act provided for a reduction of all duties which exceeded 20 per cent under the act of 1832, on the following scale: 10 per cent of the excess to be removed on January 1, 1834; 10 per cent more on January 1, 1836; another 10 per cent on January 1, 1838, and a fourth on January 1, 1840; on January 1, 1842, one-half of the remaining excess was to be abolished, and the remainder of the excess on July 1, 1842, leaving, after that date, a uniform tax of 20 per cent. One of the arguments used by Clay to secure support for his compromise from his fellow protectionists was that it would be superseded before its ultra reductions took effect. But during the second administration of Jackson and the administration of Van Buren-the latter had no very clear views about the tariff --other financial questions occupied the attention of the country, and even during the hard times of 1837-the tariff was only incidentally alluded to in the discussion of remedies; [112] and until after the election of 1840 no aggressive steps were taken to change the law. But the approach of the date when the horizontal rate of 20 per cent would go into effect was causing uneasiness. The duty on rolled bar iron, for instance, which was 95 per cent (specific) in 1832, had dropped to 42.5 on January 1, 1842, and would drop to 20 per cent in the coming July. Moreover, the extra session of Congress which assembled in June, 1841, had to face a deficit of the revenues.

As the Whigs were in control of both Houses they could make any change in the tariff on which they might agree, and to which the President would consent. Clay, their leader, quickly presented his program in the shape of a resolution setting forth the leading matters which should be acted upon, including, in order, the repeal of the Sub-treasury law, the incorporation of a United States Bank, and the raising of the necessary revenue both by an increase of duties and a loan. The extra session passed no tariff bill, but it did authorize a loan of $12,000,000, which, on account of the condition of the public credit, the Treasury found it difficult to secure. In his message at the opening of the regular session in the following December, [113] President Tyler recommended tariff revision, with a view to the substitution of discriminating for level rates, but without violating the spirit of the compromise of 1833. The Secretary of the Treasury, in his report, suggested that the condition of the finances would no longer permit a strict observance of that act. In the following March-just previous to his farewell to the Senate-Clay introduced resolutions favoring an increase to 30 per cent of the duties that would be reduced to 20 per cent in the following June, and at the same time a repeal of the law under which there was to be no distribution of the proceeds of land sales among the States so long as the tariff rate exceeded 20 per cent.

The death of Harrison elevated to the presidency a man whom Greeley in later years characterized as “an imbittered, implacable enemy of the party which had raised him from obscurity and neglect to the pinnacle of power.” The Tribune gave Tyler faithful support in the early part of his administration, even taking the view of only a minority of the Whigs in defending Webster's course in remaining in the Cabinet after his associates, at Clay's instigation, had resigned because of the President's veto of the United States Bank bill. But a visit to [114] Washington in December, 1841, convinced Greeley that Tyler was “treacherously coqueting with Loco-focoism” with a view to his own renomination. Greeley made a trip in 1842 through parts of New England, New York State, and Pennsylvania, including Washington in his itinerary, and on his return he foreshadowed his view of the issue to be made prominent in the next presidential campaign in a note from “the senior editor,” in which he said: “The cause of protection to home industry is much stronger throughout this and the adjoining States than even the great party which mainly upholds it; and nothing will so much tend to insure the election of Henry Clay next President as the veto of an efficient tariff bill by John Tyler .... If a distinct and unequivocal issue can be made upon the great leading questions at issue between the rival parties — on protection to home industry and internal improvements — the Whig ascendency will be triumphantly vindicated in the coming election.” That year witnessed the struggle over the tariff between President Tyler and the Whig Congress, the President vetoing two bills1 because [115] of provisions for the distribution among the States of the proceeds of land sales, and finally signing one which was decidedly protective, but which Calhoun declared was passed more to make a political issue than to please the manufacturers. This opinion was certainly in line with Greeley's recommendation.

From that time to the date of his nomination for President, Greeley, with the Tribune at his back, was the foremost advocate of a protective tariff in this country, addressing a larger constituency than any of the tariff advocates in Congress. He was early recognized as an authority on the subject, Weed placing only Hezekiah Niles above him. He was the author of an article in the Merchants' Magazine of May, 1841, which replied to a free-trader's argument, and he and McElrath began, in 1842, the publication of a magazine called The American Laborer, whose purpose was the inculcation of the protective doctrine. In November, 1843, he and Joseph Blunt defended the affirmative side in a debate in the Tabernacle in New York city on the question, [116] “Resolved, That a protective tariff is conducive to our national prosperity,” Samuel J. Tilden and Parke Godwin taking the negative. As he printed his argument on this occasion in his autobiography in 1868, it may be accepted as defining the groundwork of his belief.

He laid down and explained five positions:

1. “A nation which would be prosperous must prosecute various branches of industry, and supply its vital wants mainly by the labor of its own hands.” History proved that an agricultural and grain-exporting nation had always been a poor nation.

2. “There is a natural tendency in a comparatively new country to become and continue an exporter of grain and other rude staples, and an importer of manufactures.” This was true because, in a new country, the available labor is in demand for clearing fields, opening roads, etc., while older countries have not only an adequate labor supply, but capital and machinery.

3. “It is injurious to the new country thus to continue dependent for its supplies of clothing and manufactured fabrics on the old.” The ruling price of grain in a district which exports it will be the price at the point to [117] which it is exported, less the freight — that is, the price it brings there as obtained from the countries nearest at hand, and which can produce it most cheaply. The British manufacturer would only be obliged to mark the price of his cloths 5 per cent below the wholesale price of the same grade in Illinois in order to control the cloth market in this country. The free-trader who sees in this only more cloth for the money for the American purchaser, overlooks the point that the American grain-producing purchaser must, under free trade, look abroad for a market for his surplus grain at the lowest world's price-“in other words, while Illinois is making a quarter of a million dollars by buying her cloth where she can buy cheapest, she is losing nearly two million dollars on the net product of her grain.”

4. “The equilibrium between agriculture, manufactures, and commerce, which we need, can only be maintained by means of protective duties.” It would not be wise to buy boots and hose and knives and forks in Europe at a cost below the home price when the facility of paying for them manufactured at home would be greater.

5. “Protection is necessary And proper to sustain as well as to create a beneficent adjustment [118] of our national industry.” Under this heading he explained that “if manufactures were protected as a matter of special bounty or favor to the manufacturers, a single day were too long” to continue the protection; protection should be afforded “for the sake of all protective labor.” Why not do without protection when, under the tariff, you can manufacture cheaper than you can buy abroad? Because, under free trade, Europe can at any time dump on us its surplus product, and so ruin our own markets. He did not admit the existence of any foreign markets for American goods, and said, “If the American manufacturers can not make sales, the sheriff will and must. . . . Were it certain that the price of home products would be permanently higher than that of the foreign, I should still insist on efficient protection. .... I look not so much to the nominal price as to the facility of payment. And, where cheapness is only to be attained by a depression of the wages of labor to the neighborhood of the European standard, I prefer that it should be dispensed with.” 2 [119]

Henry Clay received the Whig nomination for President in 1844 without opposition, and Greeley threw himself into the campaign with all the devotion of one who loved the candidate “for his generous nature, his gallant bearing, his thrilling eloquence, and his lifelong devotion to what I [Greeley] deemed our country's unity, prosperity, and just renown.” The Tribune early in the year had increased its size one-third and treated itself to a new “dress” (of type). As soon as the Clay ticket was in the field it issued a campaign weekly, called The Clay Tribune, fifteen subscriptions to which (for the campaign) cost only five dollars. Greeley never, probably, worked as he did in that year. His wife was in Massachusetts, and he spent most of his time in the office, scarcely giving himself opportunity to sleep. His contributions to the Tribune averaged three columns a day; he made as many as six speeches in some weeks, and he conducted (without the aid of a secretary) a large correspondence. “Very [120] often,” he says in his Busy Life, “I crept to my lodging near the office at 2 to 3 A. M. with my head so heated by fourteen to sixteen hours of incessant reading and writing that I could only win sleep by means of copious affusions from a shower-bath; and these, while they probably saved me from a dangerous fever, brought out such myriads of boils, that-though I did not heed them till after the battle was fought out and lost-I was covered by them for the six months ensuing, often fifty or sixty at once, so that I could contrive no position in which to rest, but passed night after night in an easy chair.” It was in this campaign that Greeley won his position as the leading Whig expounder and defender of the doctrine of protection.

Greeley accepted the election of Polk as a personal defeat of himself. “I was the worst beaten man on the continent,” was his own later expression. But he also believed that Clay might have been elected had all the Kentuckian's supporters worked as hard as he did. The circulation of 100,000 copies of his Daily Tribune and of 25,000 of his Clay Tribune would, he always thought, have secured Clay's election.

Greeley did not ignore, in the next few [121] years, the growing importance of the slavery question, as it was shaping itself in connection with Texas annexation; but he did not abandon the tariff as his favorite leading issue for the campaign of 1848. Polk's letter to John K. Kane, in 1844, in which he had declared it “the duty of the Government to extend fair and just protection to all the great interests of the whole Union,” had, together with the placing of Dallas on the ticket with him, taken a good deal of the protection wind out of the Whig sails, so that Greeley did not consider the result a fair test of the popular opinion on the tariff. He was encouraged, too, by the speedy passage of a new tariff bill by the Democratic Congress elected with Polk. The new Secretary of the Treasury, Robert J. Walker, of Mississippi, in his first report, strongly favored a lighter tariff, making what was considered an attack on the protection policy; and a bill which bore his name was passed (by the casting vote of Vice-President Dallas in the Senate, and against the vote of every Representative but one from Pennsylvania) which divided dutiable articles into classes, those in Schedule C, for instance, which included most products over which there was a special controversy, to pay a duty of 30 per cent on their [122] value; the tariff of 1842 provided that iron, in this schedule, should pay so many dollars per ton. In 1846, Pennsylvania, in an “off year,” chose sixteen Whigs out of her nineteen Representatives in Congress, and the Whigs made encouraging gains in other important States. Greeley strongly favored the nomination of Clay again in 1848, and another tariff campaign, but the convention named General Taylor. [123]

1 Of Tyler's veto, the Tribune said: “If the spirit of national pride — the feeling of free sovereignty among the people --had not been stifled and destroyed by gradual and almost imperceptible encroachments upon their rights during the last twelve years, a voice would go forth from the heart of the nation which would drive to his duty the weak man whose selfish ambition now turns him from it.”

2 A series of 24 essays by Greeley, “designed to elucidate the science of political economy, while serving to explain and defend the policy of protection to home industry as a system of national cooperation for the elevation of labor,” which had appeared in the Tribune, were published in book form in 1870. In these essays he not only elaborated his view that protective duties do not necessarily increase prices to consumers, and met many arguments advanced by revenue reformers, but he discussed paper money, usury, the balance of trade, slave and hired labor, cooperation, and kindred subjects.

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