Congress Passes Dingley Tariff Act

The Dingley Act instituted protective tariff policies that led to a major rift between the Republican Party, in favor of the tariff, and the Democratic Party, against the high tariff. The act became the focus of intense criticism and debate after 1900, as Democrats argued the high tariff helped large corporations at the expense of consumers and as some Republicans, especially from midwestern states, sought some sort of reform of the tariff law.

Summary of Event

One of the most controversial political issues of the late nineteenth century was the protective tariff. Republicans argued that high customs duties on imports to the United States protected U.S. businesses from foreign competition and provided jobs to farmers and workers. Democrats countered that the policy raised prices to consumers and favored some businesses at the expense of others. The tariff became a key issue dividing the two major parties, with the Republicans united behind protection and most Democrats advocating lower tariffs. Dingley Tariff Act of 1897
Congress, U.S.;Dingley Tariff Act
[kw]Congress Passes Dingley Tariff Act (July 24, 1897)
[kw]Passes Dingley Tariff Act, Congress (July 24, 1897)
[kw]Dingley Tariff Act, Congress Passes (July 24, 1897)
[kw]Tariff Act, Congress Passes Dingley (July 24, 1897)
[kw]Act, Congress Passes Dingley Tariff (July 24, 1897)
Dingley Tariff Act of 1897
Congress, U.S.;Dingley Tariff Act
[g]United States;July 24, 1897: Congress Passes Dingley Tariff Act[6250]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;July 24, 1897: Congress Passes Dingley Tariff Act[6250]
[c]Trade and commerce;July 24, 1897: Congress Passes Dingley Tariff Act[6250]
[c]Economics;July 24, 1897: Congress Passes Dingley Tariff Act[6250]
Aldrich, Nelson Wilmarth
Dingley, Nelson
Reed, Thomas Brackett

In the presidential elections of 1888 Presidency, U.S.;election of 1888
Presidency, U.S.;election of 1892 and 1892, the two parties had offered very different approaches to trade policy. The Republicans received support for protectionism in 1888; the Democrats elected Grover Cleveland in part on the promise of lower tariffs in 1892. Republicans had enacted the protective McKinley Tariff in 1890 and saw their control of the House of Representatives vanish as voters rejected the higher prices associated with the law.

When the Democrats regained the White House in 1893 under President Cleveland Cleveland, Grover
[p]Cleveland, Grover;and tariffs[Tariffs] , they had endeavored to pass a law to lower the tariff. Divisions within the party over other issues and the onset of the economic depression of the 1890’s made it difficult for the Democrats to agree on a reform law. The result was the Wilson-Gorman Tariff of 1894, which lowered rates somewhat but also made concessions to protectionist sentiment within the Democratic Party in order to get a bill through Congress. Cleveland let the bill become law without his signature, and the Republicans hammered away at the measure in the congressional elections of 1894. When the Republicans regained the House in that year, they promised that if a Republican president were elected in 1896, the tariff would be revised upward.

The Republican nominee in 1896 was William McKinley McKinley, William
[p]McKinley, William[MacKinley, William];and tariffs[Tariffs] , who had long been associated with the protective tariff in the House. By that time, however, McKinley had decided that it would be wise to include a policy of reciprocal trade whereby the United States would moderate its tariff rates in return for concessions from trading partners. The new president was not a free trader. Reciprocity would occur within the protective system, but he envisioned an expansion of trade with this approach.

William McKinley delivering his inaugural address on March 4, 1897, four months before Congress passed the Dingley Tariff Act.

(Library of Congress)

After he defeated William Jennings Bryan in 1896, McKinley urged Congress to move ahead quickly on a tariff law. He summoned the lawmakers into session in March, 1897. Planning meant that the House could act quickly on the tariff. The chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Nelson Dingley Dingley, Nelson , reported out a new tariff bill, called the Dingley Tariff, on March 18, three days after the session opened. The speaker of the House, Thomas Brackett Reed Reed, Thomas Brackett , used the power of the Republican majority to push the bill through within three weeks of the opening of the session.

The situation was more complex in the Senate, where Republican control was less secure. There the Dingley Tariff became entangled with another issue. To achieve a greater use of silver in international trade, the United States had opened negotiations with France about an agreement on a policy known as international bimetallism. The French indicated interest in helping the United States if they could receive some concessions for their products in the new tariff bill. These elements led Nelson Wilmarth Aldrich Aldrich, Nelson Wilmarth , chair of the Senate Finance Committee, to produce an initial tariff measure in the Senate that recognized French desires, including lower rates on French luxury products.

As time passed, however, the various interest groups within the Republican coalition increased the pressure for higher tariff rates. The result was a bill that raised duties on such products as wool and woolen clothing, while hiking rates on French items such as silks, gloves, and olive oil. When the bill became more protectionist, Senate supporters of international bimetallism pushed the idea of tariff reciprocity treaties as a way of promising future concessions to France and other nations. The Senate bill, as passed on July 7, included language that allowed the president to negotiate treaties for a reduction of up to 20 percent on the duties in the Dingley bill.

The conference committee of the House and Senate leaned more toward the protectionist side. The final bill retained the raised duties on wool, silk, and other products of concern to France. There was wording that allowed the president to offer countries reductions on specific items and to negotiate reciprocal trade treaties as well. The bill came out of conference on July 19, and both houses approved it by July 24, 1897. Despite not having a dependable majority in the Senate, the Republicans had passed a tariff bill quickly and with little intraparty friction. The French initiative on international bimetallism collapsed later in the summer, for reasons unrelated to the passage of the Dingley Tariff.


Public reaction to the Dingley Act was quiet. The returning prosperity of the summer of 1897 made the action of the Republican Congress seem appropriate. Although President McKinley McKinley, William
[p]McKinley, William[MacKinley, William];and tariffs[Tariffs] tried to use the reciprocity sections of the law during the remainder of his term and negotiated agreements with France, Jamaica, Jamaica Argentina, and other nations, the strength of protectionist sentiment on Capitol Hill limited his accomplishments. In his last public speech, on September 5, 1901, in Buffalo, New York, McKinley argued for reciprocity as a policy of the future and sought to guide public opinion to tolerance of freer trade. The next day he was shot and, with his death on September 14, 1901, reciprocity waned. The new president, Theodore Roosevelt Roosevelt, Theodore
[p]Roosevelt, Theodore;and tariffs[Tariffs] , proved willing to let Congress have its way on the tariff.

Until 1900, the Dingley Tariff enjoyed general political acceptance. As the return of prosperity following the Spanish-American War became more apparent, consumer prices rose and inflation became an issue. The rise of large corporations and public fears about anticompetitive cooperation by those corporations also were associated with the protective policy. Democrats charged that the tariff law had stimulated the growth of giant corporations and raised prices that average citizens had to pay. Within the ranks of the Republicans, sentiment to reform the tariff law grew, especially in the plains states of the Midwest. Party regulars remained steadfast in support of the law, and an internal dispute about the tariff marked the history of the Republicans during the first decade of the twentieth century.

In the presidential election of 1908 Presidency, U.S.;election of 1908 , public pressure and the attacks of the Democrats led the Republicans to promise a revision of the tariff following the outcome of the race for the White House. The winner, William Howard Taft, followed through on this commitment and set in motion events that led to the enactment of the Payne-Aldrich Tariff of 1909. The controversy that stemmed from that event led, in turn, to a split in the Republican Party and the election of Democrat Woodrow Wilson in 1912. After Wilson took office, the Democratic Congress passed the Underwood Tariff in 1913, which lowered rates and finally replaced the Dingley Tariff completely.

The Republicans achieved substantial political benefits from the Dingley Tariff during the McKinley administration. After 1901, it became a source of persistent friction and opposition internally and from the Democrats. In that period, the law gained its enduring historical reputation as the embodiment of the high protective tariff policies associated with the Republican Party during the last twenty-five years of the nineteenth century.

Further Reading

  • Aaronson, Susan Ariel. Taking Trade to the Streets: The Lost History of Public Efforts to Shape Globalization. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001. Although this work focuses on global trade and local activism, it does include the chapter “Same Arguments, Different Context: A Brief History of Protectionism from 1789 to the 1960s,” encompassing the time period of the Dingley Act and early Republican protectionist trade policy.
  • Becker, William H. The Dynamics of Business-Government Relations: Industry and Exports, 1893-1921. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982. Considers how U.S. business viewed export policy, and contains useful information on the Dingley Tariff from that perspective.
  • Gould, Lewis L. “Diplomats in the Lobby: Franco-American Relations and the Dingley Tariff of 1897.” Historian 39 (August, 1977): 659-680. Uses the French diplomatic archives to trace the relationship between tariff-making and bimetallic diplomacy during the summer of 1897.
  • ________. The Presidency of William McKinley. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1980. Considers the enactment of the Dingley Tariff in the context of the first year of the McKinley administration and traces the president’s use of reciprocity as a bargaining tool in trade relations between 1897 and 1901. Good starting point for research on the Dingley law.
  • Irwin, Douglas A. “Changes in U.S. Tariffs: The Role of Import Prices and Commercial Policies.” American Economic Review 88, no. 4 (September, 1998). Examines the history of tariffs and trade policies in the second half of the nineteenth century through 1967. Focuses especially on the politics that have led to particular tariff rates.
  • Northrup, Cynthia Clark, and Elaine C. Prange Turney, eds. Encyclopedia of Tariffs and Trade in U.S. History. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2003. An informative collection of more than four hundred entries on the tariff acts passed by Congress between 1789 and 1930. Includes primary sources and the texts of the tariffs themselves.
  • Taussig, Frank W. The Tariff History of the United States. New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1967. In this classic, begun in 1892 and updated yearly with each new tariff act, economics professor and occasional chair of the U.S. Tariff Commission Taussig regards the Dingley Tariff as a transitional measure, reflecting the changing nature of American manufacturing as it faced a new threat of foreign tariff retaliation.
  • Terrill, Tom E. The Tariff, Politics, and American Foreign Policy. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1973. Examines the Dingley Tariff from the perspective of whether a search for overseas markets drove U.S. foreign policy during the end of the nineteenth century.
  • Wolman, Paul. Most Favored Nation: The Republican Revisionists and U.S. Tariff Policy, 1897-1912. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992. The Dingley Tariff forms the starting point for the author’s discussion of Republicans who lobbied for downward revision of the tariff after 1897.

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