Cover image for The Tariff Question in the Gilded Age: The Great Debate of 1888 By Joanne Reitano

The Tariff Question in the Gilded Age

The Great Debate of 1888

Joanne Reitano

BUY

214 pages
6" × 9"
21 b&w illustrations
1994

The Tariff Question in the Gilded Age

The Great Debate of 1888

Joanne Reitano

“Despite the importance of the tariff issue to politics between 1877 and 1913, very little has been done in a serious scholarly way to explore the impact of the tariff on the history of the two major parties. Reitano has chosen to write about a measure, the Mills Bill of 1888, that did not become law. Nonetheless, she has taken this episode and used it to provide a stimulating and important analysis of the public rhetoric about protection and free trade. Her book makes a significant contribution to Gilded Age political history, and it offers an original interpretation of the election of 1888.”

 

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Protective tariffs were part of American life long before the era of NAFTA and GATT. In the late nineteenth century, the "tariff question" was one of the most controversial issues of the day. As Joanne Reitano shows in this far-reaching study, the ensuing debate was anything but an empty exercise in political rhetoric occupying only politicians and lobbyists. The tariff was of central concern to a broad cross section of people because of its perceived relationship to immediate economic problems, such as wages, prices, and trusts. In fact, it became a means for many Americans to wrestle with the implications of the country's rapid growth and the impact of industrial capitalism on American life.

Reitano focuses on the election year of 1888, when the tariff was adopted as a cause célèbre by President Grover Cleveland, Congress, the two major parties, and the press. At the heart of the debate was the Mills Bill for tariff reduction. Although the bill failed to pass, Reitano finds in the rancorous public debate a barometer of changes in the American mind in the Gilded Age. She carefully blends intellectual, political, economic, and social issues through analyses of the Congressional Record, press coverage of the debate, academic and polemical literature, political cartoons, and the presidential campaign. Ultimately, Reitano contends that ideas about political economy have always been central to the American mind. They were so in the Gilded Age as they are today.

“Despite the importance of the tariff issue to politics between 1877 and 1913, very little has been done in a serious scholarly way to explore the impact of the tariff on the history of the two major parties. Reitano has chosen to write about a measure, the Mills Bill of 1888, that did not become law. Nonetheless, she has taken this episode and used it to provide a stimulating and important analysis of the public rhetoric about protection and free trade. Her book makes a significant contribution to Gilded Age political history, and it offers an original interpretation of the election of 1888.”

Joanne Reitano is Professor of History at LaGuardia Community College of the City University of New York.

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