The GOP’s Civil War Over Trade Is Nothing New by Marc-William Palen

According to the Financial Times, the Trump White House is fighting a civil war over trade.[1] Trump’s ultra-nationalist “America First” program does not sit well with Republican free traders. Why? Because the program contains a variety of protectionist weapons, including retaliatory tariffs against the country’s largest trading partners, dismantling NAFTA, withdrawal from the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and taking potshots at the World Trade Organization (WTO). In justifying his protectionism, Trump has harkened back to the ideas and policies of the Civil War era. “Listen to this,” Trump said last June. “The first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, warned that, quote ‘the abandonment of the protective policy by American government will produce want and ruin among our people.’ He understood it much better than our current politicians, that’s why he was Abraham Lincoln, I guess.”[2] Although it ignores the myriad ways in which the global economy has changed between then and now, Trump’s drawing upon the Republican Party’s protectionist past is illustrative of the long fight between economic cosmopolitanism and economic nationalism that helped define Civil War Era party politics and foreign relations.

Trade was a divisive issue within the GOP from its founding in the 1850s. While the party’s broad adherence to the antislavery mantra “Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men” at first hid this ideological conflict between economic nationalism and economic cosmopolitanism, the internal war over trade would end up reshaping and redefining the Republican Party by the early 1880s. The Republican majority, including Abraham Lincoln, was wedded to the Whig-protectionist “American System” of economic nationalism. But, overlooked until recently, the fledgling party also contained a vocal minority of free traders: a regular “who’s who” of radical northern abolitionists.[3]

The entire article can be viewed on the Journal of the Civil War Era Muster blog.