“Gorman’s Triumph - A Humiliating Spectacle”

September 8, 1894

William A. Rogers

“Gorman’s Triumph - A Humiliating Spectacle”

Analogies, Ancient Rome; Congress; Presidential Administration, Grover Cleveland; Symbols, Democratic Donkey; U.S. Economic Policy, Trade/Tariffs;

Cleveland, Grover; Gorman, Arthur Pue;

No 'Places' indexed for this cartoon.

No caption

In 1893, President Grover Cleveland and Congressman William Wilson of West Virginia, both Democrats, drafted a bill to lower tariff rates.  After the House passed a slightly revised version, Senator Arthur Pue Gorman of Maryland, a Democrat, and other senators radically altered it into a high-tariff bill.  This cartoon depicts the passage of the Wilson-Gorman Tariff in August 1894 as a stunning victory for Senator Gorman, and a degrading defeat for President Cleveland.  Gorman is a conquering Roman Caesar who ruthlessly drives the Democratic high-tariff chariot of the "Sugar Trust" over Wilson and his low-tariff bill.  Cleveland appears as a vanquished warrior, captured and enslaved in the tariff war, whose enchained figure is forced to bow and follow Gorman's lead.

Debate over tariff policy had existed since the early days of the American republic, but reached a peak in the late-nineteenth century as the United States became increasingly industrialized.  In the 1880s, Republicans began to emerge as the party of trade protectionism, while Democrats become more clearly identified with lower tariffs.  Still, as the episode of the Wilson-Gorman Tariff attested, there were differences of opinion in both parties on the issue, especially the Democratic Party.  In the 1880s, President Chester Arthur, a Republican, and his Democratic successor, President Grover Cleveland, unsuccessfully tried to reform and reduce the high and complex tariff rates.  In 1890, Congressman William McKinley, a Republican from Ohio, sponsored the McKinley Tariff Act, which raised the average tariff rate to 48%, the highest peacetime rate in American history to that date.

The harmony expressed at the 1892 Democratic National Convention on tariff reform and other issues was a mirage, but helped the party win control of both houses of Congress and send Cleveland back to the White House for a second (non-consecutive) term.  President Cleveland believed that high protective tariffs unfairly aided some industries at the cost of others, raised prices for consumers (who were then struggling with an economic depression), and hampered the national economy.  Unlike his first term, when he had sent a powerful message to Congress calling for tariff reform and then removed himself from the legislative process, Cleveland took a more active role in the winter of 1893-1894.  

Cleveland worked with Congressman Wilson, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, to draft a tariff reform bill, which Wilson introduced into the House on December 19, 1893.  The president stayed in close contact with Wilson as the bill made its way through the House, and threatened to use his patronage power against Democratic congressmen who opposed the measure.  Wilson would have preferred deeper cuts, and the chairman had to make some concessions to his colleagues, but the final bill was close to Cleveland's goal of modest reform, reducing the overall tariff rate by about 15% and expanding the duty-free list for raw materials.  On February 1, 1894, the Wilson Tariff passed the House, 204-140, and was sent to the Senate.

The Democrats' slim majority in the Senate necessitated strict party solidarity if the measure was to pass.  At a Democratic Party caucus, chaired by Senator Gorman in late February 1894, bitter criticism of the Wilson Bill revealed it had little chance of success.  In early March, Senators James Jones of Arkansas and George Vest of Missouri personally solicited amendments to the bill from all their aggrieved colleagues.  By the time the bill was reported from the Finance Committee to the full Senate on March 20, it had been substantially changed by shrinking the free list and actually raising rates on a laundry list of products.  

Floor debate brought more dissatisfaction and confusion, prompting Gorman to convene another party caucus on May 3.  He and Jones presented a third version, removing most raw materials (such as sugar) from the free list and raising rates on over 100 items.  When the final vote was taken in the Senate, over 600 amendments had been added to the original House bill.  Only wool and copper remained on the free list, import duties were placed on both raw and refined sugar, rates for numerous items were added or raised, and the overall rate of 42% was only a 6% reduction from the McKinley Tariff.  On July 3, the Wilson-Gorman Bill (as it was then called) passed the Senate, 39-34, with 12 senators abstaining.

Cleveland and Wilson hoped to reinvest the legislation with real reform at the joint conference that commenced in July to resolve differences in the House and Senate versions.  Gorman and the Democratic senators, however, refused to budge, insisting that the House accept the Wilson-Gorman Bill as the Senate had passed it.  The president had essentially stayed out of the fray while the Wilson Bill was being dramatically transformed by the Senate, and the Democratic senators had been undaunted by his previous threats to the House.  With the conference deadlocked, Cleveland had Wilson read a letter on the floor of the House in which the president urged Democrats to stand fast for the principle of tariff reform, labeling opposition as "party perfidy and party dishonor."  Cleveland's ill-timed intervention with heated rhetoric only angered Gorman and Senate Democrats, who dug in their heels.

Despite the best efforts of Wilson, House Democrats voted to accept the Senate version of the bill, passing the Wilson-Gorman Tariff 182-105 on August 13.  A disheartened Cleveland refused to sign the bill, but did not veto the measure, which, as bad as it was, he considered better than the McKinley Tariff it replaced.

Robert C. Kennedy

“Gorman’s Triumph - A Humiliating Spectacle”
May 29, 2024

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