June 2015 - Volume 20, Number 2
The Full Dinner Pail
by John Hendrickson
The Grand Old Party (GOP) has changed since its founding. One change that has occurred is the Republican Party’s stance on trade policy. Today a solid majority of Republicans are supporters of the doctrine of free trade. This was not the case for most of the GOP’s history as Republicans became the champions of protectionism. In fact the principle of protectionism was a sacred pillar of the Republican Party. This philosophy was carried over from the Federalist and Whig economic programs of Alexander Hamilton and Henry Clay. Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican to be elected President, championed a protective tariff. A tariff was used both for revenues and to protect the American economy from Europe.
The political economy of the Republican Party, as Calvin Coolidge described, was shaped by the Federalists and Whigs:
This philosophy also consisted of a commitment to sound money as exemplified by the gold standard, low levels of taxation and regulation, balanced budgets, and a commitment to property rights and economic liberty. These principles along with the protective tariff defined the political economy of the Republican Party. The doctrine of protectionism was not just putting “America first,” but also protecting the entire economy and labor by preserving manufacturing and solid wages for workers.
During the late 19th century, Ohio’s William McKinley became the chief defender of both “protection and the gold standard.” Coolidge argued that McKinley’s policies brought forth a period of economic prosperity owing to trade protection and strengthening the gold standard. As Coolidge stated:
Coolidge also noted that “when all these things were done, the time was ripe for the great economic and industrial development of our country”:
The result of McKinley’s policies as Coolidge noted was the “application of his principle of a protective tariff, which furnished the initial opportunity for laying down of the greatest industries of America and the development of her entire resources.” Coolidge believed, just as McKinley argued, that protectionism benefited not just business, but the farmer and laborer as well. “Cheap goods meant cheap men,” stated Coolidge. The rallying cry of protectionism in the GOP came under the slogan the “Full Dinner Pail,” which was utilized by William McKinley during his presidential campaigns and by later Republican presidential candidates including Calvin Coolidge. The “Full Dinner Pail” represented economic prosperity, high wages, and a sound economy.
During the 1920s, tariff policy followed the McKinley course under President Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover. The Fordney-McCumber Tariff Act became the major tariff legislation of the Harding and Coolidge administrations. Even during his post-presidency Coolidge continued to defend the policy of protection:
The “Full Dinner Pail” platform of McKinley, Harding, and Coolidge resulted in a period of economic expansion and growth, which benefited not only business, but the middle class. As columnist and former Republican presidential candidate Patrick J. Buchanan wrote:
The America-first trade policy of protectionism through tariffs was not only a constitutional way of protecting national sovereignty, but also putting the economic health of the nation first. The policy of protectionism was often debated within Republican circles, but it was a policy that many took seriously as a key component to an overall successful economic program.
As Robert Lighthizer, who served as a trade representative in President Ronald Reagan’s administration, wrote:
Republicans would be wise to remember such American conservative statesmen who followed in the footsteps of Hamilton, Lincoln, McKinley, Harding, and Coolidge, who placed America first above anything else.
 Calvin Coolidge, “Our Heritage from Hamilton, Address on the Anniversary of the Birthday of Alexander Hamilton, Before the Hamilton Club, at Chicago,” January 11, 1922, in The Price of Freedom: Speeches and Addresses by Calvin Coolidge, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1924, p. 109.
John R. Hendrickson is a
Research Analyst with Public
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