McKinley championed tariffs in his first year

Editor’s note: This is part of a weekly series marking the 120th anniversary of Niles native William McKinley’s U.S. presidency.

The date March 4, 1898, marked the first year of William McKinley’s presidency. His and his administration’s focus was on the economy through two issues, the gold standard and tariffs on foreign goods.

Tariffs are a hot political issue today for President Donald Trump and Congress. As we relive history, the arguments for and against the issue are the same as in the past. Those for tariffs, deemed “protectionists,” want American goods to compete with foreign nations that took away jobs during the recession in our country. Those against raising taxes argued it would raise prices on products to consumers and lead to inflation.

McKinley in his first inaugural address in March 1897 called into special session the 55th Congress to deal with economic issues at a time when the country was still suffering from the nearly four-year recession that followed the financial panic of 1893.

McKinley instructed the House and Senate to deal swiftly with industrial disturbances for speedy relief. He asked Congress to vest in him as president the ability to create a commission of prominent, well-informed citizens of different parties to provide guidance and to complete this action within his first year.

While his commission started to convene, McKinley would make trips for ceremonial duties, a custom of the president in those days. He would take the opportunity to speak in several cities and states dealing with trade and tariffs.

In those speeches, McKinley would say, “A tariff half made is of no practical use, so we go for a whole law, which is making great progress. The country is not going backward, but forward. It will triumph through wise and beneficial trade and tariff legislation.”

The Dingley Act of 1897 as introduced by Congressman Nelson Dingley Jr. of Maine was approved by Congress and signed by McKinley. This act lasting 12 years would be the longest tariff in our history, raising taxes on foreign goods up to 52 percent on items such as woolens, hides, linens, china goods and sugar.

This is historically interesting as we hear about current recommendations that tariffs be raised 15 to 35 percent on automobiles, 25 percent on steel and 10 percent on aluminum, solar panels and washing machines.

Tariffs are nothing new to our nation, as there have been a total of 31 tariff acts over 228 years, starting in 1789 with Alexander Hamilton as secretary of the treasury under President George Washington.

Mike Wilson is the director of SCOPE Senior Services of Trumbull County and has traveled around the nation performing as William McKinley for the past 25 years.