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Tariff of 1883

During the last quarter of the 19th century, attitudes regarding the tariff broke down along the following lines:

  • The majority of the farmers in the South and West, mostly Democrats, opposed a high protective tariff. Their production of corn, wheat, cotton and livestock was unrivaled in any other part of the world; American farmers could usually undersell the competition and, therefore, did not need or want tariff protection.
  • Influential manufacturing interests in the North pushed hard and effectively for high tariffs. Their products needed protection from cheaply produced goods from foreign nations. However, when the U.S. imposed high duties, foreign nations would respond in kind; the parties hurt most directly by this retaliation were the American farmers whose products became more expensive in foreign markets.
There were exceptions to the rules, however. Some specialized agricultural producers (such as sugar growers) favored high tariffs as a means to protect themselves from inexpensive Caribbean sugar. On the other hand, one of the great industries of the era, the railroads, opposed protectionism because they wanted access to cheap steel, regardless of whether it was American or foreign. The tariff debate had persisted since the republic's inception, but one feature was different in the early 1880s – the government had accumulated large dollar surpluses. Those funds were deposited in government vaults, not placed in banks where the money could be recirculated. Farmer and debtor elements protested this shrinkage of the money supply. President Arthur responded to the public outcry and appointed a commission to come up with the most effective ways to lower the tariff. The recommendations of the board were ignored by Congress, which passed a new measure, the "Mongrel" Tariff of 1883, a compromise measure that satisfied nobody. Duties were lowered on a few items, but increased on most manufactured goods. The tariff would remain an issue of contention.
What is a Tariff? Also see tariff table summary.