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The McKinley Tariff of 1890

Instructor: Jason McCollom
The issue of the tariff, and McKinley Tariff of 1890, in particular, led to deep divisions between Republicans and Democrats in the late 19th century. Learn about this debate and take a short quiz to check your knowledge.

The Politics of the Tariff

Ah, the tariff: one of the most exciting political issues! Wait, I'm serious! Nineteenth-century politics was a contact sport, and the tariff was a hot topic. In the decades after the Civil War, the Republicans (the Grand Old Party, or GOP, for short) became the pro-tariff party. A high tariff--a tax on imports--meant that American businesses were protected from foreign competition. A tariff on steel or textile imports, for instance, would benefit domestic steel and textile producers. So, these businesses, mostly in the manufacturing region of the Northeast, threw their support to the GOP.

Large manufacturers, such as steel producers, generally supported the protective tariff
steel production

On the other side of the issue were farmers, mostly in the South and Midwest. Agricultural goods such as wheat or cotton did not benefit from the tariff. In fact, a high tariff increased the prices farmers had to pay on imported necessities such as farm machinery. Agriculturalists in the South and West, then, gravitated towards the Democrats, which had become by the 1880s the party against protectionism (against the tariff).

By the late 1880s, the tariff was a big moneymaker for the government, bringing in more than $2.1 billion in revenue. In the 1888 presidential election, the GOP staked their victory on protectionism and made it the central issue. The party created a political constituency of industrialists, corporate leaders, producers of raw materials, and other groups that benefitted from the tariff.

Republican candidate Benjamin Harrison's platform promised the maintenance of a high tariff. He warned that 'tariff tinkering' would disrupt economic growth and reduce wages. The GOP's strategy worked, as Harrison was swept into office.

Benjamin Harrison
harrison

The McKinley Tariff of 1890

High off their smashing victory, protectionist forces in the Republican Party boldly put forth a plan for the highest tariff rates in history: an average of almost 50%! Representative William McKinley of Ohio pushed the legislation through Congress in 1890, and it became known unofficially as the McKinley Tariff.

William McKinley
mckinley

Such unprecedented high rates had two important effects. First, imports dropped dramatically. Second, American businesses raised their prices significantly because they no longer had to worry about European competitors. This was good for domestic business owners, but not for American consumers, who saw prices rise precipitously.

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