Three times in a row—1884, 1888 and 1892—Grover Cleveland won both the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination and then more popular votes than his Republican opponents in the general election. It would be 20 years before the country would elect the next Democratic president, Woodrow Wilson.
In the space of just two decades, Democrats elected one of the all-time best chief executives and arguably the very worst. The two men were poles apart on almost everything, Cleveland being a small-government man who revered the Constitution and Wilson being a so-called “progressive” who undermined it.
How did such a sea change in American politics happen?
More than a single reason explains it, but one man more than all others was responsible for it. His name was William Jennings Bryan.
Bryan swept Democrats off their feet with his mesmerizing “Cross of Gold” speech at the party’s convention in 1896. Repudiating the hard money stance of their own incumbent Cleveland, Democrats handed Bryan their presidential nomination on a silver platter. They did it again in 1900 and in 1908. Bryan lost all three times—to Republicans William McKinley twice and William Howard Taft once. His populist, inflationist agenda, however, helped transform his party. He later served as Wilson’s Secretary of State until he couldn’t stomach Wilson’s interventionist, pro-war foreign policy and resigned.
It turns out that he was right on something else too—an issue raging in the country right now.
I’ve always regarded Bryan as a delusional crank. He was probably an honest man of good personal character but often dead-wrong on the big issues of his day. Until I delved into his record recently, my impression was that he was right to oppose Wilson on American entry into World War I but that was all. It turns out that he was right on something else too—an issue raging in the country right now.
That issue was trade. The silver-tongued orator from Nebraska eloquently supported the longstanding Democratic position in favor of lower tariffs. On this, he was in the right and on Cleveland’s side.
On the floor of the House, Bryan delivered his first major speech as a congressman on March 16, 1892. It stands as a compelling case against the high tariffs of the Harrison administration. It helped Cleveland beat Harrison in November and return to the White House the following year. With trade and tariffs so much in the news today, we can learn a few things from the man who was otherwise misguided most of the time.
“You can impose no tax for the benefit of the producer of raw material which does not…press with accumulated weight upon the person who uses the finished product.”
Bryan declared that the system of protective tariffs was “held together by the cohesive power of plunder,” benefiting the interests of the protected at the expense of most working people and consumers. He called for raw materials to be completely tariff-free because, in his words, “You can impose no tax for the benefit of the producer of raw material which does not…press with accumulated weight upon the person who uses the finished product.” I cheered as I read him pronounce, “I do not believe we should make a manufacturer or anyone else an agent to collect money from one man and pay it into the pocket of another man.”
He noted sardonically that protective tariffs don’t always and automatically help the industries they are intended to protect. Sometimes, for instance, they simply raise prices and drive consumers to alternatives: “I find that in the states east of the Mississippi River we now have about one-half the number of sheep that we had when protection took the wool industry of the country into its encouraging embrace.”
Addressing the matter of duties on the import of “binding twine” (strong string composed of multiple threads of hemp or cotton), Bryan expressed an indisputable principle:
There is a difference between a man coming to this Congress and demanding that other people shall be subjected to a tax for his benefit and a demand on the part of those taxed to be relieved of the burden. Is there not a difference between these two principles? It seems to me that the difference is as marked as between day and night. It is simply this difference, sir: The man who says, “Impose upon somebody else a tax for my benefit,” says what the pickpocket says, “Let me get my hand into his pocket”; but the man who says, “Take away the burdens imposed on me for other people’s benefit,” says simply what every honest man says, “Let me alone to enjoy the results of my toil.”
One of the oldest arguments for protective tariffs involves so-called “infant industries.” High-tariff quacks at least as far back as Abraham Lincoln’s mentor Henry Clay employed it. They claimed that new enterprises needed protection from foreigners until they got off the ground. Bryan addressed a major flaw, namely, that the infant might never grow up:
This was the argument used in the beginning; but arguments have to be framed to meet conditions, and we find now that infants that could get along on 10 percent when they were born, and 20 percent when they were children, and 30 percent when they were young men, have required 40, 50, 60 or 70 percent when old and entering upon their second childhood.
You can imagine the thrill that ran up my spine when I came upon a passage in Bryan’s speech that cited free-trade hero Frederic Bastiat. Protectionists, Bryan insisted,
…are fit companions for the people who are supposed by Bastiat to have petitioned the French legislature to find some way of preventing the sun from shining, because it interfered with the business of the candle-makers. If their theory is true, then the most unkind act of the Creator was to send that great orb of day every morning to chase away the shadows of the night, flood all the earth with his brightness, and throw out of employment those who otherwise might be making tallow candles to light the world.
To accept it, he reasons, would deprive him of a few hours of employment crafting a plank from a raw log.
Since the 1970s when I taught economics at the university level, I’ve told the story of Robinson Crusoe, alone on a deserted island. With no one to trade with, he must fashion everything he wants from the crude raw materials nature provides—including the hewing of planks for his house from trees he cuts down. One day, a perfectly pre-cut plank washes up on shore. Thinking like a protectionist for a moment, he kicks the plank back into the sea. To accept it, he reasons, would deprive him of a few hours of employment crafting a plank from a raw log.
Believe it or not, Bryan tells that very same Crusoe story in his 1892 speech! He drives its point home by declaring to his colleagues, “If this is the true principle, then discard your riding cultivators, go back to the crooked stick, and let us plow in such a way that all the people of this country can find employment in plowing alone.”
But what about the government’s need for revenue that a protective tariff provides? Bryan asks. He answers by pointing to estimates that for every dollar in revenue to the government, the tariff bestows four dollars of benefit to the coddled special interests. If true, that means that 20 percent of the total “tax” (the tariff plus resulting higher prices) goes to the Treasury and 80 percent goes to the protected companies. “Try that in your counties,” Bryan tells his fellow members of Congress:
How many of your counties would permit the collection, by direct taxation, of $100,000 in taxes when only $20,000 were needed for revenue? How many of you would pay $80,000 to some man to collect the $20,000 that you wanted to use?
Bryan didn’t oppose tariffs for revenue only—tariffs to pay, for instance, the government’s cost of deepening a harbor. “What I denounce,” he said, “is a protective tariff, levied purely and solely for the purpose of protection.” With perhaps a little hyperbole, he denounced protection as “false economy and the most vicious political principle that has ever cursed this country.” The distinction between a revenue tariff and a protective one, he asserted in the most colorful language:
It is the difference between the man who meets you upon the highway, knocks you down and takes what you have, and the man who steals into your house in the night while you are asleep and robs you of your treasures; and if I had the choice between the two I would consider the highway robber the more honorable, because he does what he does openly and before the world.
“The man who justifies protection as a principle must prove three things,” said Bryan. “He must prove that the principle is right, that the policy is wise, and that the tax is necessary.” The Nebraska populist wasn’t convinced that protectionists had delivered on any of those things. The tariff was simply slavery by degrees:
It has been said that a slave was a slave simply because 100 percent of the proceeds of his toil was appropriated by somebody without his consent. If the law is such that a portion of the proceeds of our toil is appropriated by somebody else without our consent, we are simply to that extent slaves, as much so as were the colored men. And yet this party (the Republican Party), that boasts that it struck the shackles from 4,000,000 slaves, insists on driving the fetters deeper into the flesh of 65,000,000 of free men.
These excerpts are among many superb insights within Bryan’s speech of 1892. You can read them all, as well as some other Bryan orations that weren’t nearly so good, in this paperback reprint, Speeches of William Jennings Bryan.
Today, the distinctions between the two major political parties on trade and tariffs are not as stark as they were in Bryan’s day. Even Republican Donald Trump argues that his high tariff rhetoric is a negotiating tactic to ultimately achieve lower tariffs and freer trade. If indeed that’s the end result, I will applaud. And so would William Jennings Bryan and almost every 19th Century Democrat.