The McKinley Tariff 1890

National American Woman Suffrage Association's support for Bristow-Mondell amendment.

The highest tariff in American history, to date, was passed. It called for a tariff of over 49.5% on most goods. The eastern industrialist interests, who were strong supporters of protectionism, were the prime movers behind the tariffs. The Democrats, under Cleveland, lowered the tariffs slightly. They were soon raised again.


By the late 1880’s tariffs had evolved into a central political issue. Tariff had two main purposed, they were a major source of funds for the government and they provided protection for American companies from foreign competition. The latter was known as protectionism and the question of how much protection to give American manufacturers was an issue from the earliest days of the country, and often divided different parts of the country. Manufacturers and states with significant manufacturing tended to support higher tariffs, while agricultural producers who exported a great deal of their products opposed it. Tariffs were good for manufacturers but were bad for consumers since they increased the price of imported products.

In 1887 Grover Cleveland devoted his entire State of the Union address to the need to lower tariffs. Tariffs became a partisan issue with the Democrats supporting the reduction of tariffs while the Republicans pushing for higher tariffs. In 1888 the Republicans ousted Cleveland the House and Senate were controlled by the the Republicans. William McKinley became the Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee- the Committee of the House of Representatives that was responsible for setting tariff policy. McKinley who had always received support from big business was known as the “Napoleaon of Protection” moved to raise tariffs. The House began to debate tariffs and a total of 450 amendments were presented. When the tariff act of 1890 was finally passed it increased average taxes on imports fro 38% to 49.55 the highest level in American history.

The bill included a number of special provisions one raising the tariffs on tin-plates to 70% but including a provision if domestic manufacturing did not increase to 1/3 of imports the tariff would be eliminated completely. It also increased substantially tariffs on low quality wool. It did eliminate tariffs on sugar, molasses, tea, coffee and hides.