The World’s Famous Orations, Vol. 10

Author: Thomas Brackett Reed  | Date: 1894


In Closing the Wilson Tariff Bill Debate*

It is often said that the truth is the simplest. That is so, after you understand the truth, but Copernicus discovered the theory of the universe it took centuries for men to believe it. The Ptolemaic theory was so simple that anybody by using hs eyes could see the sun rise in the east and set in the west just like the moon, and to-day most men accept the Copernican theory, not on their own understanding, but on the general belief of mankind.

I shall not, therefore, in what I have to say, be able—being, as I hope, on the side of truth—to rival the charming simplicity of the gentlemen opposite, or, like them, to compress the universe into the nutshell of a speech. I regret this the less because I know that many a philosopher has put the world into a nutshell only to find that the nutshell contained a world in which nobody ever lived, or moved, or had his being, and consequently a world which was of no human account.

Whether the universal sentiment in favor of protection as applied to every country is found or not, I do not stop to discuss. Whether it is 177 best for the United States of America alone concerns me now, and the first thing I have to say is, that after thirty years of protection, undisturbed by any serious menace of free trade, up to the very year now last past this country was the greatest and most flourishing nation on the face of the earth. Moreover, with the shadow of this unjustifiable bill resting cold upon it, with mills closed, with hundreds of thousands of men unemployed, industry at a standstill, and prospects before it more gloomy than ever marked its history—except once—this country is still the greatest and the richest that the sun shines on, or ever did shine on.

According to the usual story that is told, England had been engaged with a long and vain struggle with the demon of protection, and had been year after year sinking farther into the depths, until at a moment when she was in her distress and saddest plight, her manufacturing system broke down, "protection, having destroyed home trade by reducing," as Mr. Atkinson says, "the entire population to beggary, destitution, and want." Mr. Cobden and his friends providentially appeared, and after a hard struggle established a principle for all time and for all the world, and straightway England enjoyed the sum of human happiness. Hence all good nations should as England has done and be happy ever after.

Suppose England, instead of being a little island in the sea, had been the half of a great 178 continent full of raw material, capable of an internal commerce which would rival the commerce of all the rest of the world.

Suppose every year new millions were flocking to her shores, and every one of those new millions in a few years, as soon as they tasted the delights of a broader life, would become as great a consumer as any one of her own people.

Suppose that these millions, and the 70,000,000 already gathered under the folds of her flag, were every year demanding and receiving a higher wage and therefore broadening her market as fast as her machinery could furnish production. Suppose she had produced cheap food beyond all her wants, and that her laborers spent so much money that whether wheat was 60 cents a bushel or twice that sum hardly entered the thoughts of one of them except when some Democratic tariff bill was paralyzing his business.

Suppose that she was not only but a cannon-shot from France, but that every country in Europe had been brought as near to her as Baltimore is to Washington—for that is what cheap ocean freights mean between us and European producers. Suppose all those countries had her machinery, her skilled workmen, her industrial system, and labor 40 per cent. cheaper. Suppose under that state of facts, with all her manufacturers proclaiming against it, frantic in their disapproval, England had been called upon by Cobden to make the plunge 179 into free trade, would she have done it? Not if Cobden had been backed by the angelic host. History give England credit for great sense.

It so happens that America is filled with workers. There are idle people, but they are fewer here than elsewhere except now, when we are living under the shadow of the Wilson Bill. If those workers are all getting good wages they are themselves the market, and if the wages are increasing the market is also increasing. The fact that in this country all the workers have been getting better wages than elsewhere is the very reason why our market is the best in the world and why all the nations of the world are trying to break into it. We do not appreciate the nature of our market ourselves.

We are nominally 70,000,000 people. That is what we are in mere numbers. But as a market for manufactures and choice foods we are potentially 175,000,000 as compared with the next best nation on the globe. Nor is this difficult to prove. Whenever an Englishman earns one dollar an American earns a dollar and sixty cents. I speak within bounds. Both can get the food that keeps body and soul together and the shelter which the body must have for sixty cents. Take sixty cents from a dollar and you have forty cents left. Take that same sixty cents from the dollar and sixty and you have a dollar left—just two and a half times as much. That surplus can be spent in choice foods, in house furnishings, in fine clothes, and all the comforts 180 of life—in a word, in the products of our manufactures. That makes our population as consumers of products as compared with the English population 200,000,000. Their population is 37,000,000 as consumers of products which one century ago were pure luxuries, while our population is equivalent to 175,000,000.

If this is our comparison with England, what is the comparison with the rest of the world, whose markets our committee are so eager to have in exchange for our own? Mulhall gives certain statistics which will serve to make the comparison clear. On page 365 of his Dictionary of Statistics he says the total yearly product of the manufacturers of the world are 4,474,000,000, of which the United States produces 1,433,000,000.

I do not vouch, nor can anybody vouch, for these figures, but the proportion of one-third to two-thirds nobody can fairly dispute. We produce one-third, and the rest of the world, England included, two-thirds.

The population of the world is 1,500,000,000, of which we have 70,000,000 which leaves 1,430,000,000, for the rest of mankind. We use all our manufactures, or the equivalent of them. Hence we are equal to one-half the whole globe outside of ourselves, England included, and compared as a market with the rest of the world, our population is equal to about 70,000,000.

I repeat, as compared with England herself as a market our people are equivalent to 181 175,000,000. As compared with the rest of the world, England included, we are equal as a market to 700,000,000.

Instead of increasing this market by leaving it to the steady increase of wages which the figures of the Aldrich report so conclusively show, and which have not only received the sanction of the member from New York, the Secretary of the Treasury, and the Democratic Bureau of Statistics, but the sanction of everybody who hears me, our committee propose to lower wages and so lessen the market and then divide that market with somebody else, and all on the chance of getting the markets of the world.

Who have these markets of the world now? There is hardly a spot on the globe where three generations of Englishmen, Frenchmen, or Germans have not been camped in possession of every avenue of trade. Do you suppose that with machinery nearly as good as ours and wages at one-half these men are going to surrender to us the markets of the world? Why, the very duties you keep on show that you do not believe it. If we can not without duties hold our own markets, how shall we pay freight, and the expense of introducing goods, and meet the foreigner where he lives?

We were talking a while ago about higher wages. The question naturally comes up, How can these higher wages be got? There must be something for them to come from. Just think a moment what wages are. They are the 182 devourers of consumable wealth. In order to have more consumable wealth you must have an incentive for creation. Wealth will never be made unless a consumer stands ready. More consumable wealth, therefore, depends upon a broadening market. This I have already shown, does not mean more purchasers, but purchasers with better purses, tho, for that matter, in this country we have both.

But how can you make more wealth with the same number of workers? By using forces of nature and by utilizing human brains. How can you do that? By incentives. The brain no more works without incentive than the body does.

To hear the discussion in Congress you would suppose that invention dropped from heaven like manna to the Jews. You would suppose that James Watt reached out into the darkness and pulled back a steam engine. It was not so. All invention is the product of necessities and of pressure. When the boy who wanted to go off to play and so rigged the stopcocks that the engine went itself, he was not only a true inventor, but he had the same motive—his personal advantage—that all inventors have, and, like them, was urged on by business necessities.

What originated Bessemer steel? Sir Henry Bessemer? No; but the necessities of railroads, under public pressure for lower rates of traffic, which would every one of them have been bankrupt without steel rails. If Sir Henry had not invented the process somebody else would. It 183 detracts not one iota from the fame of Alexander Bell that a dozen men were close on his track. It has been so in every great invention. I say, therefore, that it was the diversification of our industries that has stimulated inventions. Otherwise all the inventive power of America would have run to waste; and when a man calculates the wonders of American inventive genius he knows where some of our wealth comes from. As a further proof that invention is born of necessity, tell me why great inventions never come until the world is in such shape as to enjoy them? What would the Crusaders have done with railroads? There was not money enough in the world to travel or merchandise to keep them going a week.

Here let me meet one other question, and let me meet it fairly. We are charged with having claimed that the tariff alone will raise wages, and we are pointed triumphantly to the fact that the wages of France and Germany, protected by a tariff, are lower than England, free of all tariff, and to America with a tariff and still higher wages. We have never made such a claim in any such form. Free-traders have set up that claim for us in order to triumphantly knock it over. What we do say is, that where two nations have equal skill and equal appliances and a market of nearly equal size, and one of them can hire labor at one-half less, nothing but a tariff can maintain higher wages, and that we can prove.

If there be two bales of goods side by side, made by the same kind of machinery and with the labor of human beings in both of the same degree of skill, and if the labor of one bale cost only half, for example, as much as the other, that other bale can never be sold until the extra cost of the costlier labor is squeezed out of it, provided there is an abundant supply of the product of the cheaper labor. If the bale with the cheaper labor of England in it meets the bale with the dearer labor of America in it, which will be bought at cost of production? I leave that problem just there. The sale of the English bale will be only limited by England’s production.

Some men think, indeed, this bill and its author’s speeches proceed upon the supposition that the first step toward gaining the markets of the world is to give up our own; just as if a fortified army, with enemies on all flanks, should overturn its own breastworks as the first preliminary to a march into the open. Even the foolish chivalry of the Marquis de Montcalm which led him to his death on the Heights of Abraham had not that crowning folly. Such is not the history of the world; such is not even the example of England. Tariff duties, whether levied for that purpose or for revenue, become a dead letter when we are able to compete with the outside world.

We are the only rival that England fears; for we alone have in our borders the population and 185 the wages, the raw material, and within ourselves the great market which insures to us the most improved machinery. Our constant power to increase our wages insures us also continuous progress. If you wish us to follow the example of England, I say yes, with all my heart, but her real example and nothing less. Let us keep protection, as she did, until no rival dares to invade our territory, and then we may take our chances for a future which by that time will not be unknown.

We know, my friends, that before this tribunal we all of us plead in vain. Why we fail, let those answer who read the touching words of Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural and remember that he pleaded with these same men and their predecessors. Where he failed we can not hope to succeed. But tho we fail here to-day, like our great leader of other days in the larger field before the mightier tribunal which will finally and for ever decide this question, we shall be more than conquerors; for this great nation, shaking off, as it has once before, the influence of a lower civilization, will go on to fulfil its high destiny, until over the South, as well as over the North, shall be spread the full measures of that amazing prosperity which is the wonder of the world. 186

*From his speech in the House of Representatives on February 1, 1894, summing up the debate on this bill, as reported in "The Congressional Record." free from party bickering and party strife. Hence, also, there can be no foundation for that cry, so insidiously raised that this bill should be passed at once, because uncertainty is worse than any bill can possibly be. Were this bill to pass both branches to-day, uncertainty would reign just the same.

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Chicago: Thomas Brackett Reed, The World’s Famous Orations, Vol. 10 in The World’s Famous Orations, ed. William Jennings Bryan (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, December, 1906), Original Sources, accessed May 20, 2024,

MLA: Reed, Thomas Brackett. The World’s Famous Orations, Vol. 10, in The World’s Famous Orations, edited by William Jennings Bryan, Vol. 10, New York, Funk and Wagnalls, December, 1906, Original Sources. 20 May. 2024.

Harvard: Reed, TB, The World’s Famous Orations, Vol. 10. cited in December, 1906, The World’s Famous Orations, ed. , Funk and Wagnalls, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 20 May 2024, from