“Mongrel Tariff” Act (1883) by malj


									“Mongrel Tariff” Act (1883)

        After the Civil War, the United States maintained a high protectionist tariff on
imports. Talk of lowering the tariff surfaced periodically in the 1870s, but finally came
to a head in 1883 with the “Mongrel Tariff” Act. Conceived out of political compromise,
the Mongrel Tariff Act reduced rates only marginally and left in place fairly strong
protectionist barriers. President Arthur approached the issue cautiously, but lent his
support to the measure.
        The tariff was hot-button politics during the last three decades of the nineteenth
century, making tariff revision a daunting task. Different constituents argued for opposite
measures, often wanting to maintain tariffs on some items while reducing them on others.
Support or opposition to tariffs often broke down along regional lines. President Arthur
entered the fray in May 1882, appointing a commission to recommend how much rates
should be reduced. In December, the commission argued for substantial reductions.
Protectionists in Congress by this time recognized that public sentiment in favor of tariff
reform made some type of reduction necessary, but wanted to avoid a drastic cut. Lame
duck Republicans wanted to ensure that a tariff reduction passed before incumbent
Democrats assumed control of Congress in the next session and lowered rates by a
greater margin. The result was the complex and unpopular Tariff Act of 1883,
nicknamed the “Mongrel Tariff” by critics. The Act did not reveal a clear vision for
America’s tariff policy, but rather reflected the many competing interests that wanted to
shape that policy. Tariffs on some items were lowered, while others were inexplicably
raised. Some goods had multiple tariffs rates placed on them to be applied in different
locations with no clear reasoning behind them. In sum, the enormously complicated
“revision” did little of note. On average, tariff rates were reduced a mere 1.47 percent,
with most rates remaining around 35-40 percent.
        Recognizing that the Tariff Act was the work of the lame duck Congress and not
the executive, the public did not associate President Arthur with the law. Arthur learned
from the episode that tariff reduction and other measures to expand commerce would
only be effective if his Administration, and not Congress, handled them. Arthur was not
the most enthusiastic supporter of tariff reduction, but he did feel that some meaningful
reduction was needed and he recognized that the changes made by the “Mongrel Tariff”
were insufficient. Thus, he directed Secretary of State Frelinghuysen to establish
reciprocal trade agreements with other nations, especially those with raw materiels the
U.S. needed. The reciprocal trade agreements allowed Arthur to amend the tariff without
having to involve himself in a congressional battle over the issue.

Lester Brune, Chronological History of United States Foreign Relations (New York:
Garland Publishing, 1985)

Justus D. Doenecke, The Presidencies of James A. Garfield & Chester A. Arthur
(Lawrence: The Regents Press of Kansas, 1981)

David M. Pletcher, The Awkward Years (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1962)

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