• Daniel Ethan Finneran

The Party Of Lincoln: The Party Of Tariffs

March 2018


There were two fundamental pillars upon which the early Republican Party stood. The first and the sturdiest—and, frankly, the one that most fills us with pride—was that of abolition. The party, perhaps overly simply put, was created as a reaction to this “peculiar” and odious institution. Visceral it may have been, the creation of the Republican Party was a reaction born of a liberal sentiment, a staunch repudiation of slavery’s insidious creep.


Under the dreadful leadership of President James Buchanan (a characterization of the man with which, I dare say, even the most sympathetic historian wouldn’t disagree) and at the urging of that famously petite, orotund, and redoubtable Democrat Stephen Douglas, the Missouri Compromise of 1820 was annulled and the Kansas-Nebraska Act implemented in its stead. Doubtless, the Missouri Compromise from the outset was a tenuous thing. For President Monroe, the path he took in establishing it was hedged with low expectations and hopes that, in time, it might be improved. At the very least, he’d hoped it would appease those who most needed appeasing; neither Rebel nor Yankee found in it much to relish.

Nevertheless, so enacted, Maine, formerly of Massachusetts, would henceforth shower upon its inhabitants the vitalizing air that only freedom can, and would provide for its eager, iridescent races the chance to pursue their unfettered dreams. Missouri, on the other hand, formerly of the uncharted west, would grant liberty only to those endowed with white skin—a vestige and a consequence of that immutable, inescapable law. That law is, of course, the iron order of melanin to which all of Africa, most of South America, and some of Asia is still subject to till this day.


Just as the Whigs—from whom the Republicans would later evolve—organized themselves as an opposition party, so too did the Republicans. For the former, their ax to grind wasn’t an issue nor an event per se, but rather a person; not a cause célèbre, but a political celebrity. Andrew Jackson, or, “Old Hickory”, whose nickname was as unpliable and stolid as his personality, stirred in many disillusioned Democrats unmitigated contempt. By his own doing, he became the man around whom a disparate and far-reaching coalition of Whigs formed. Among them, we count such luminary American names like Calhoun, Clay, Tyler, Taylor, Webster, and Lincoln. Some were men of the South, most were of the North, but within every Whig’s heart, there beat, on each rise and fall, a shared and profound enmity for Old Hickory’s reign.


What Jackson was for the burgeoning Whigs, the Kansas-Nebraska Act was for the later Republicans. Most of them, the Republicans, that is, had no trouble galvanizing around and excoriating what they considered a most objectionable decree. After all, it was this very same type of emotion, this same undaunted vigor, this same zealous and widespread antipathy, that brought their Whig forbearers together as a unit and as a party with a coherent purpose and goal. The Kansas-Nebraska Act, such as it was, ceded questions of liberty to popular sovereignty. Demarcations be damned, the Act’s proponents exclaimed; no longer would the Missouri Compromise’s arbitrary and, frankly, obsolete 36th latitudinal line apply to America’s most existential question as it expanded west—the question of how each new state would come to be admitted as emancipated or enslaved, liberated or subjugated, fettered or free. Instead of an imaginary line, answering these questions would be a matter of public opinion, which was being articulated increasingly in the tone of the slave-owning South. It was they, slightly more so than their complaisant, urbane neighbors to the north, who were flocking to the territories and making known to America their anti-abolitionist bent. Thus became the portentous vox populi, that slavery was not only here to stay, but was here, there, and everywhere, ready to grow in scope and ubiquity from sea to shining sea.


What happened next is well-known: Beecher sent his “bibles” and Lovejoy was struck dead. Charles Sumner suffered a caning at the hands of Preston Brooks and John Brown, almost single-handedly, incited a civil war. It was within this admittedly radical context, this precarious moment of upheaval, that the tired, sanctimonious, monotonous Republican Party that so often puts us to sleep today was born. It’s no witty re-rendering of words, no clever quip to say that they, the mid-century Republicans, were in truth more progressive and more radical than any radical in our day.


The issue of abolition in the expanding western territories was, as I mentioned, the major force in driving the Republican Party’s formation. But, aside from those pressing questions of liberty, inequality, and human injustice, early Republicans had to contend—as presently they do and as always they will—with other quotidian issues of their time. All roads very well may have led back to the issue of slavery in the Republican’s heart, but there were other concerns at home and abroad, domestic and foreign, cultural, intellectual, political, and economical. This leads to the second, admittedly less sexy pillar upon which the Party was built: that is, its economic philosophy.


Republicans, and the mode of their thought—howsoever bold at the time it may have been—would in no way be misconstrued as some sort of political sui generis. Theirs was not an ideology without its precedent; it was original, yes, but it, like all ideas, had its progenitors. These ideas, taken as a whole, were an extension of those of the Whigs, the Federalists, and the Democratic-Republicans from whom they sprang. This sort of eclectic ancestry opened to them many roads and they sampled a few steps down every one. From each ancestor, they took a smattering from one century, a parcel from another. They gathered in what would become the GOP all that they could carry without being burdened and ponderously slowed down. In time, this method would serve them beautifully, as they amalgamated a mosaic of ideas and left them in need only of a medium upon which they might be displayed.


But it wasn’t always so grand and, as we know it today, so conservative an image. Their economic policy was molded in the forges of urban industrialism, yet rooted in the fertile soil of the agrarian South. It was refined philosophically in its reading of Smith, Hume, and the Scottish capitalists, yet it was tempted by the model of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Jean Bodin and the French mercantilists. Above all, though, and, perhaps, most surprisingly of all, it was imbued, excited, and insulated with a devoted and severe commitment to protectionism.

This, maybe above all else, defined the party’s economic thought. Protectionism, so anathematized today, was key. Its discovery required a search across the world to find a system, a mode of economic thought, that would be sufficiently inward-looking and properly patriotic. Once found, it needed one last thing: the conduit, the channel, the man through whom it might be brought into reality. That man, as the middle of the 19th century approached, was Abraham Lincoln.


We know his history too well. Lincoln—the quintessential, primordial Republican from whose looming presence a thousand conservatives sprang and from whose memory a single exemplar captured the American mystique—summed up tersely his simple, earnest political thought in but one line: “I am”, said he, “a Henry Clay Tariff Whig”. To our modern ear, such an admission means little—I dare say that only the pedant, upon hearing it, would be stirred. After all, as we sit and ask ourselves today, what is a Whig, who is Henry Clay, and why would someone associate the two with tariffs?


It so happens that, in Lincoln’s time, to call oneself a “Henry Clay Tariff Whig” was to affix to oneself a pithy, clever political line (one can almost imagine it sticking to a car’s rear windshield or horse-drawn bumper). It was an easy way to convey an ideal. Any American even marginally politically attuned would know in an instant what Lincoln meant by uttering the phrase. The idea of the American Whig—unlike the distant Whig of English extraction, who across the sea spent his days opposing aristocrats and Tories—was long-established in the American mind. Four presidents had served under the Whiggish banner after Andrew Jackson’s departure. Ultimately, the party splintered into the disingenuously-named “Know-Nothing” Party in the South and the Republican Party in the North.


Likewise, the name Henry Clay wouldn’t have required priming. Anyone alive at the time would know about Congressman Clay, the one-time secretary of state, the seemingly always incumbent speaker of the house, the simultaneous war hawk and peace dove, and the foremost American Whig. He was a proponent of tariffs, so long as they guaranteed that the land he loved would be independent, self-sufficient, and finally immune to foreign invasions (the very likes of which had thrust America into the War of 1812). He was an apotheosis of a statesman, a type of man upon whose endless and prodigious career any young, aspiring politician might model his own. It’s no surprise, then, that it was in reference to Clay that Lincoln promoted himself.


Finally, attaching the man and the party, Clay and the Whig, was the tariff. As it was then, so it is today, the tariff—in its essence—hasn’t much changed. It still is bemoaned by free market enthusiasts, only now with the added cries of Austrians and Chicagoans, who were to arrive, as Austrians, soon after and then, as Chicagoans, many years following President Lincoln’s death. At the expense of consumers, stockholders, and surrounding industries, the tariff indirectly increases prices in many sectors and in many ways. Save for the select, typically vulnerable industries it seeks to protect, the tariff works like an indirect tax. It raises to an arbitrary rate the cost of the importation of goods from abroad and in so doing, forces manufacturers to purchase more expensive, home-grown commodities. Seldom is it that these products are cheaper than those purchased from abroad and even more seldom is it that manufactures will content themselves to “eat” this newfound cost; they will pass these costs along to the level of consumption, where we, the helpless buyers, grudgingly pay.

You can see, surely now, where the interesting historical context begins. Tariffs were then, as again they are now, a hot-button issue. They tend always to evoke an impassioned response. As such, it’s no stretch of the imagination, nor subtle manipulation of history to say that in many ways, the imposition of new and the continuation of old tariffs was a casus belli—a tinder-box of political dynamite that, once lit, had cataclysmic effects. Accreted over time, from the Tariff of 1816, to that of Abominations in 1828, to those of 1832 and 1833 and the tipping point that came to be known as the Nullification Crisis during that time, the federal government’s insistence on tariffs, along with the persistence of slavery, led to the Civil War.

It’s within this context that one must read Lincoln’s statement with new eyes. Only then can one see the confluence of the Whig, of Henry Clay, and of his allegiance to tariffs and how these factors bore on his mind and informed his agenda. Only then can one realize that the Republican Party, the party of laissez faire and of free trade, wasn’t then what it now purports to be.


That said, Lincoln’s admission, seldom ascribed to him yet authentically his own, tends to catch many a conservative acolyte off-guard. It’s a statement that’s been, by and large, expunged from his official personal canon. Instead of it being openly acknowledged, it tends to find itself—if it’s to be found at all—hidden in the cupboard and slipped out of sight next to all of those other seemingly apocryphal but true aspects of his political thought. Among them, are how he suspended, under the guise of extenuating wartime circumstances, the writ of habeas corpus, or how he advocated for the “re-colonization” of emancipated Africans away from America and back to their ancestral, equatorial lands, or how he freed not all slaves with his Proclamation, but only those conveniently placed beyond the Union’s reach, those fettered in the heart of Dixie where the federal government, in the fiery grasp of the secessionists, held no sway.


But the fact that the Republican Party was founded, largely if not entirely on Lincoln’s insistence that tariffs were an economic boon, is a notion with which modern Republicans must come to terms—a historic truth with which they must be reconciled. It’s easy for a modern Republican to look at and then quickly beyond this essential pillar, this economic ideology upon which the party was built. Gazing back, we prefer rather to mine and then exhibit only the precious gems we want seen. But, for every ounce of gold is a bit of dross. This affinity for tariffs, this illiberal approach to free trade, was the Republican Party’s first blemish—its original sin. Today’s Republican, he who fumes mad at the proposal of a 25% tariff on steel and of 10% on aluminum, would do well to remember whence the party came.

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