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Significance Of The Wilson Tariff Law

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



THE special purpose of the Wilson Bill was to wipe out every enduring vestige in tariff legislation of the Republican party. That party had been in power for thirty-two years, and now that the Democrats had got into office for the first time since the war, they were anxious to make a record all their own, with a view of installing themselves for a long period, as the Republicans had done. The party was greatly elated. It determined to make a clean sweep of the country, and to that end it was necessary to come before the people with a popular issue; but the popularity of the issue chosen proved delusive. The issue was free trade thinly disguised under the cloak of " tariff for revenue only "; and as soon as the Democratic party began to doctor the tariff, want of confidence in the wisdom of the Administration began to make itself manifest, and this feeling increased as the presumable reform in tariff went on. The people did not want it, never did want it in this country, and never will want it in its entirety, although we will naturally, as we become permanently a large creditor nation, gravitate nearer and nearer to it. The Wilson Tariff Law may prove a blessing in disguise, however, as it has effectually barred the Democratic party from raising the free-trade issue again for many years. Of course it has been a very expensive experiment for the country, having cost it, in panics, hundreds of millions of dollars, perhaps; but the history of the experiment will stand in our annals as a solemn warning to voters for all time to let free trade theories alone if they want to see the country prosperous. Pursuing their belligerent method of reasoning, then, the first aim of the Democrats was to get the McKinley Law out of the way. Major McKinley had been a conspicuous leader in the Republican party, and the law that bore his name was a popular measure and one calculated to bring prosperity in its wake, as was abundantly proved by results, until free trade agitation blocked the path of prosperity. It would never do, reasoned the free-traders, to let any part of that law remain on the statute book as a menace to the towering ambition of Democrats and their ideas of sweeping reforms. It would spoil the Democratic issue, and throw discredit on that bait of cheap clothing offered to voters who would have no money to buy it under a free-trade regime. It was resolved, therefore, that free trade in the disguise of "tariff for revenue only " would prove an effective scheme to capture voters. The eventual election of Major McKinley, however, was a sad blow to this fondly cherished hope. Instead of the Wilson Law being instrumental in consigning the name of McKinley to oblivion, as had been intended, it has been one of the chief instruments in making him a more marked personage than ever, and has helped materially to give him a chance of making a world-wide and durable reputation among the political benefactors of his day and generation. As the Wilson Law was calculated to take away from the wage earner a considerable portion of what he had been accustomed to earn, in many instances from one third to one half, besides throwing hundreds of thousands out of employment, it did not matter to him whether the price of a coat was two, five, or ten dollars. He could get no money to buy it at any price. So that argument was soon demonstrated to be a cruel mockery to the wage earner, however plausible or conclusive it might seem from a theoretical and professional point of view. It was no wonder that Mr. Cleveland was highly incensed when he discovered that an obstinate Senate had altered that solemn production, which he had regarded as a sort of new Declaration of Independence, into a kind of serio-comic farce, and that the document, when presented to the President and compared with the original, afforded a fine illustration of the Napoleonic maxim, "it is but one step from the sublime to the ridiculous," - the step on that occasion being from the House of Representatives to the maliciously humorous Senate. Nevertheless, those 640 amendments inserted by the Senate, though they were loudly denounced at the time by the free trade party as ruinous to the beneficent purposes of the bill as originally designed, turned out to be an unexpected blessing to the country. The Senate is entitled to the praise and admiration of the whole people on account of its masterly mutilation of that bill, for if the measure had passed in the shape that it left the House, it would have been fraught with even more financial mischief. The feeling of distrust and worry inflicted on the seventy million inhabitants of this country would have made them appear so careworn and broken down in health and spirit, as well as in pocket, that people who had not seen each other for several years would have found as much difficulty in mutual recognition, as Professor Wilson experienced in the identification of his own political progeny after the 640 amendments had been attached thereto. But seriously, this, like many other fiascos, goes to show that if legislators want to be able to judge aright in national financial affairs, if they aim at broad-gauge legislation and wish to shed the shell inseparable from their existence in village communities, they must go to headquarters occasionally, and that is New York City. If they want to exercise clear judgment in regard to business, as commingled with their legislative functions and purposes in the interest of the whole people and in touch with the country at large, they must become imbued, verily saturated, with cosmopolitan ideas. After working themselves for a time into the belief- as by this faith they shall be saved -that financially at least New York is virtually the United States, in the same sense that London is England, and Paris is France, they should return home and reflect studiously on their experience. When this supposable trip to the metropolis is over, and a day or two of reflection is indulged in regarding the journey thus enjoyed, the eyes of the traveler will gradually open, and he will begin to wonder why he has been trifling his time away around his native town for half a lifetime with his eyes half shut. His ears also will have passed through a course of similar development, and his whole intellectual capacity will be endowed with vastly improved powers of absorption, reception, and retention. For the first week or so he will look upon his fellow townsmen with a feeling similar to that with which Captain Lemuel Gulliver regarded the Lilliputians, according to the account given by Dean Swift of that remarkable nation of midgets; and after going through this preliminary process, the legislator will find himself much more capable of legislating in the interests of finance and business, and the measures which he may introduce or influence by his speeches and advice in committee, or on the floor, will take on a more statesmanlike character than those that he had assisted in passing prior to his metropolitan experience. Moreover, he will become a missionary and make converts by the dozen of the stay-at-homes. He will have discovered that a month's travel is worth a year's reading, or a college or office education, for all the practical purposes of mental evolution; and as soon as he gets through the next session he will come again and probably bring a few of his friends with him. He may finally settle down here and become a millionaire. There is no romancing about this; I can quote historical and biographical examples within my own personal experience for the probabilities and possibilities which I am now considering. People who have been born in small towns and interior places, and leave those haunts of boyhood in early youth, may return to them for social reminiscences or to renew the feelings of family ties, but they never go back there to get any information or knowledge to guide them as lawyers, statesmen, or financiers. The information which they must seek is not there to be obtained. We never read of Daniel Webster, for instance, going back to Salisbury in New Hampshire to post himself for any of his great speeches; nor do we ever hear of Henry Clay having gone to Ashland, near Lexington, Kentucky, for that purpose; nor of John C. Calhoun returning to South Carolina. The metropolitan community, for these and many other reasons, is the great center of attraction. It draws within its irresistible influence people from all parts of the globe, as the loadstone mountain was said to have drawn Mahomet in his coffin. But, unlike the case of Mahomet, the metropolis draws the people while they are very much alive, and the more vigorous they are the more easily it draws them. It is not from the best of libraries that people learn most in the metropolis. It is from the actual contact with such a large variety of people of many minds and opinions, and of many nations, that are constantly to be met there. This has a quickening effect on the perceptive faculties that men who pass their existence in small towns never experience. "Iron sharpeneth iron," says Solomon; "so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend." There is, perhaps, no place where this shrewd observation of the wise king of Israel is more vividly realized than in Wall Street. Some men attempt to ignore this educational power and civilizing influence of large cities, but had it prevailed in the last Democratic Congress, there would have been, in truth, no Wilson Bill to menace our prosperity, no paralyzing amendments, and no regrets and sorrows and heartburns over what was and what could never be.



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