The GOP’s Civil War Over Trade Is Nothing New

The GOP’s Civil War Over Trade Is Nothing New

According to the Financial Times, the Trump White House is fighting a civil war over trade.[1] Trump’s ultra-nationalist “America First” program does not sit well with Republican free traders. Why? Because the program contains a variety of protectionist weapons, including retaliatory tariffs against the country’s largest trading partners, dismantling NAFTA, withdrawal from the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and taking potshots at the World Trade Organization (WTO). In justifying his protectionism, Trump has harkened back to the ideas and policies of the Civil War era. “Listen to this,” Trump said last June. “The first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, warned that, quote ‘the abandonment of the protective policy by American government will produce want and ruin among our people.’ He understood it much better than our current politicians, that’s why he was Abraham Lincoln, I guess.”[2] Although it ignores the myriad ways in which the global economy has changed between then and now, Trump’s drawing upon the Republican Party’s protectionist past is illustrative of the long fight between economic cosmopolitanism and economic nationalism that helped define Civil War Era party politics and foreign relations.

Trade was a divisive issue within the GOP from its founding in the 1850s. While the party’s broad adherence to the antislavery mantra “Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men” at first hid this ideological conflict between economic nationalism and economic cosmopolitanism, the internal war over trade would end up reshaping and redefining the Republican Party by the early 1880s. The Republican majority, including Abraham Lincoln, was wedded to the Whig-protectionist “American System” of economic nationalism. But, overlooked until recently, the fledgling party also contained a vocal minority of free traders: a regular “who’s who” of radical northern abolitionists.[3]

This minority of Republican abolitionist free traders–most notably Joshua Leavitt, Henry Ward Beecher, Edward Atkinson, William Cullen Bryant, Charles Sumner, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and William Lloyd Garrison–did not adhere to Jeffersonianism, however, which had become tied to a defense of Southern slavery. Rather, they subscribed to the mid-century, British-born free trade ideology called “Cobdenism” (aka the Manchester School), named after the Victorian British “apostle of free trade” Richard Cobden, a staunch abolitionist and leader of the mid-century international peace movement.[4] Building upon the international dimensions of David Ricardo and Adam Smith, Cobdenism entailed the belief that free trade and a non-interventionist foreign policy would lead to prosperity and peace the world over. Cobdenism was also closely associated with the Anglo-American abolitionist movement, believing “free men” and “free trade” were but two sides of the same coin.

In 1846 Cobden had led in the successful overthrow of the protectionist Corn Laws in England, ushering in nearly a century of British free trade.[5] That same year, Cobdenites on both sides of the Atlantic had further cause for celebration, when the United States also lowered its tariff (the 1846 Walker Tariff), signaling a transatlantic move toward trade liberalization that continued for another fifteen years.[6] Cobdenites claimed this shift toward freer trade had also helped avoid war with Britain over the Oregon boundary dispute. A “free trade tariff on both sides will settle the matter quickly,” William Cullen Bryant’s New York Evening Post had predicted in late January 1846, “and give us something better to do than fighting.”[7]

This 1846 cartoon from London’s humor magazine, Punch, depicts how free trade in grain would bring a peaceful settlement to the Oregon dispute, with Sir Robert Peel [left] pelting a militant President Polk [right] with “Free Corn.” Courtesy of the author.
But this brief American flirtation with freer trade came to a halt by the time Lincoln entered the White House in 1861. In that year, Republican protectionists got what they wanted. Thanks to the secession of various Southern states in late 1860 and early 1861, the Republican Party’s economic nationalist majority suddenly found itself with the congressional numbers to push through passage of the protectionist Morrill Tariff in March 1861, to the great dismay of the GOP’s Cobdenite minority—and to the great consternation of many in Free Trade England. The close timing of Southern secession and the tariff’s passage caused many in economically cosmopolitan Britain to think at first that the protective tariff’s passage had caused secession, when in fact it had been the other way around. This initial confusion gave rise to the great Civil War lie that the Morrill Tariff had sparked secession, still erroneously touted to this day by myriad neo-Confederate advocates of the Lost Cause. The tariff’s passage thus created serious problems for Anglo-American relations in the first years of the Civil War—and further alienated the Republican Party’s free trade minority.[8]

The rift between the GOP’s protectionist majority and its Cobdenite free trade minority grew even wider after 1865, with the end of the Civil War. With the slaves now freed, the antislavery cause no longer bound together Republican protectionists and free traders. On the one hand, the party’s majority of protectionists sought to establish the party as the economic nationalist defender of the American System; as a result, slogans like “America for Americans” and “Protection for the American Workingman” increasingly peppered post-war GOP parades and conventions. On the other hand, the GOP’s minority of cosmopolitan free traders sought to overthrow the party’s fast-developing, ultra-nationalist protectionist system; for them, freeing trade was a necessary prerequisite for American peace and prosperity, as well as the next step in the emancipation of mankind.

Bearing a strong resemblance to Trump’s “globalist” conspiracy theories today, the Republican protectionist majority became ever more paranoid about the mounting Cobdenite free trade agitation in the United States.[9] Although never finding a smoking gun, the GOP’s top protectionist ideologues were prone to charging that there was a transatlantic free trade conspiracy afoot to undermine American infant industries by dismantling American high tariff walls and thereby allowing in a deluge of cheaper British manufactured goods. As Republican Cobdenite Joshua Leavitt observed in 1869, “no man of prominence in America can support even a partial relaxation of the rigours of Protection without bringing upon himself the stigma of being a partisan, and probably a pensioner, of ‘British Free Trade.’”[10]

The GOP’s internal ideological conflict over trade reached a breaking point in 1872, much like last year when free traders in the Republican National Committee contemplated running a third-party ticket once Trump appeared the likely nominee.[11] In 1872, however, the re-nomination of the corruption-laden protectionist Ulysses S. Grant broke the Republican elephant’s back. Disgusted, Republican Cobdenites decided enough was enough, and ran their own independent ticket. They named themselves the Liberal Republican Party, “liberal” in the Civil War era referring to liberal economic policies like free trade. The attempt ended in dismal failure, however, when protectionist editor of the New York Tribune Horace Greeley hijacked the nomination proceedings, to the dismay of the splinter party’s free trade founders.[12]

In this cartoon, Thomas Nast mocks the New York Tribune’s editorial tactic of tying Cleveland to British free trade and Southern slavery in the lead up to the 1884 elections. Courtesy of HarpWeek.

The Republican Party’s free trade independents learned hard lessons from the debacle of 1872. So when the GOP nominated another corruption-laden protectionist candidate in 1884–the “Plumed Knight” James G. Blaine of Maine–those in favor of free trade decided instead to throw their support behind the reform-minded Democratic nominee, New York Governor Grover Cleveland, who seemed amenable to lowering US tariff walls. Their party treachery earned them the moniker “Mugwumps” and helped swing some close races in the northeast for Cleveland. Their defection also allowed the GOP to become the party of protectionism through and through, an ideological position that its rank and file would maintain until the Reagan Revolution. Trump’s “anti-globalist” nostalgia for Lincoln’s economic nationalism is therefore rather apt, heralding a return to the party’s paranoid protectionist roots. If the Republican Party’s Civil War era past is any guide, Trump’s protectionism might also herald another GOP civil war over trade, and the return of the Mugwumps.

[1] “White House Civil War Breaks Out Over Trade,” Financial Times, (10 March 2017).

[2] “Read Donald Trump’s Speech on Trade,” Time, (28 June 2016).

[3] Marc-William Palen, The “Conspiracy” of Free Trade: The Anglo-American Struggle Over Empire and Economic Globalization, 1846-1896 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016); See also Marc-William Palen, “Free-Trade Ideology and Transatlantic Abolitionism: A Historiography” Journal of the History of Economic Thought 37, no. 2 (June 2015): 291-304.

[4] See, especially, Peter Cain, “Capitalism, War, and Internationalism in the Thought of Richard Cobden” British Journal of International Studies 5 no. 3 (October 1979): 229-247; David Nicholls, “Richard Cobden and the International Peace Congress Movement, 1848-1853” Journal of British Studies 30 no. 4 (October 1991): 351-376; Martin Ceadel, “Cobden and Peace,” in Anthony Howe and Simon Morgan, eds., Rethinking Nineteenth-Century Liberalism: Richard Cobden Bicentenary Essays (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006): 189-207.

[5] Anthony Howe, Free Trade and Liberal England, 1846-1946 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997); Frank Trentmann, Free Trade Nation: Commerce, Consumption, and Civil Society in Modern Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

[6] Scott C. James and David A. Lake, “The Second Face of Hegemony: Britain’s Repeal of the Corn Laws and the American Walker Tariff of 1846,” International Organization 43, no. 1 (January 1989): 1-29; Patrick J. McDonald, The Invisible Hand of Peace: Capitalism, The War Machine, and International Relations Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 141-155.

[7] New York Evening Post (12 January 1846).

[8] Marc-William Palen, “The Great Civil War Lie,” New York Times, (5 June 2013); Palen, “Debunking the Civil War Tariff Myth,” Imperial & Global Forum, (2 March 2015); Palen, “The Civil War’s Forgotten Transatlantic Tariff Debate and the Confederacy’s Free Trade Diplomacy” Journal of the Civil War Era 3, no. 1 (March 2013): 35-61.

[9] “Globalism: A Far-Right Conspiracy Theory Buoyed by Trump,” New York Times, (14 November 2016).

[10] Joshua Leavitt, An Essay on the Best Way of Developing Improved Political and Commercial Relations Between Great Britain and the United States of America (London, 1869), 32-33.

[11] “Republican Party Could Split if Trump is Chosen,” BBC Radio 5, (3 April 2016); “The GOP’s Nuclear Option to Stop Donald Trump: A Third-Party Candidate,” Daily Beast, (1 April 2016).

[12] See, for instance, Andrew L. Slap, The Doom of Reconstruction: The Liberal Republicans in the Civil War Era (New York: Fordham University Press, 2006).

Marc-William Palen

Marc-William Palen is a historian at the University of Exeter. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of The “Conspiracy” of Free Trade: The Anglo-American Struggle over Empire and Economic Globalization, 1846-1896 (Cambridge, 2016). He is also the editor of the history blog The Imperial & Global Forum, and co-director of History & Policy’s Global Economics and History Forum (King’s College, London). He can be reached at You can follow him on Twitter @MWPalen.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.