Thursday, February 26, 2009

"I will war against it while I have breath"

I’ve suggested before that David Wilmot seems to be a ghost. In most narratives he appears out of nowhere, tosses his famous Proviso like a stick of dynamite onto the floor of the House, and then vanishes again. Who was this guy? To get a better feel for him, I thought I’d take a look at another speech he delivered in the summer of 1846, a speech unrelated to the Proviso that bears his name.

In mid-summer 1846, the House of Representatives was sitting “in Committee of the Whole on the state of the Union.” More particularly, the House was debating the Polk administration’s proposed bill to reduce duties on imported goods from the levels set by the Tariff of 1842. The administration bill ultimately resulted in the Walker Tariff of 1846.

On July 1, 1846, Democrat David Wilmot was recognized. Although only a freshman (he had been elected in the fall of 1844), Wilmot delivered a speech that left no doubt where he stood. Defying the other members of the generally protectionist Pennsylvania delegation, Wilmot bitterly criticized the 1842 Tariff as unjust and oppressive. More generally, he denounced protectionism in general.

Wilmot approached the issue from a radical Jacksonian perspective. The 1842 Tariff was partial legislation that unjustly favored a privileged class and special interests:
I believe [the 1842 Tariff] unjust and oppressive; imposing heavy burdens upon the labor and industry of the country, for the purpose of building up a monopolizing and privileged class. I believe it at war with the spirit and genius of our institutions, and dangerous to the equal rights and liberties of the people. This Government was established for the equal benefit and protection of all its citizens. . . . When it . . . seeks to build up one interest, (which can only be done by depressing others,) it ceases to be a just Government – it becomes a tyranny, unworthy of the confidence or support of the people.

Wilmot’s brand of Jacksonian analysis emphasized protection of labor and the laborer. Some of the rhetoric sounds almost proto-Marxist:
Again: all wealth is labor. If, by any system of legislation, you enhance the profits of a particular department of labor beyond what they would otherwise be, you must of necessity draw those increased profits from the labor of some other. If this proposition be correct, the subject would seem to resolve itself into an answer of the single question: Do high protective tariffs increase the profits of the manufacturer? If so, it follows that those increased profits are drawn from some other department of industry.

The answer to that question was self-evident, Wilmot maintained:
Who is it that year after year clamors so loudly for protection? Is it the farmer – the industrious and enterprising artisan – the day-laborer? No, sir; these men are never seen about your halls, asking the special legislation of this Government in their behalf. They rely upon their industry and economy to obtain for themselves and their families a livelihood. It is the manufacturers who come here asking bounties and protection for the particular business in which they have chosen to embark their capital. Do they ask this in order to lessen their prices and diminish their profits? It is too absurd for serious argument.

The struggle over “this protective policy,” Wilmot maintained, was “a contest between capital and labor – the former struggling to perpetuate its privileges, and the latter for its rights and just rewards.”
Sir, I am in favor of protection. I here avow myself a protectionist in the highest and truest sense of the word. I demand protection for labor, against the cruel exactions of capital. I demand protection for the equal rights of the people, against a privileged and monopolizing class, upheld and sustained by partial legislation. I claim protection for the hard earnings of the poor, against an insidious system that plunders by stealth, and eats out his substance. Why, sir, in the name of humanity, seek to heap burden after burden upon the back of labor? Is not the lot of the poor already sufficiently hard? Has not wealth already sufficient advantages over poverty?

At the same time, Wilmot emphasized the limited nature of the remedy he was seeking (and in the process demonstrated that he was no proto-Marxist after all). He was not demanding affirmative protection for labor, simply that capital and wealth not receive artificial advantage:
The poor toil in heat and in cold for a plain and homely subsistence, suffering many reverses, enduring many privations. His children toil by his side, or leave home at an early age to toil in the fields or workshop of the stranger.

Against this, Democracy [i.e., the Democratic Party] makes no complaint. Democracy seeks not to deprive wealth of any of its legitimate advantages; it asks not to take from the rich one farthing of his riches; but it does demand that these advantages shall not be increased by the partial enactments of the Government; that no system of direct or indirect bounties be established, by which a portion of the earnings of the poor be taken to swell the already overflowing coffers of the rich.

The protective tariff was precisely such a system, Wilmot asserted. “I will war against it while I have breath.”

About the illustration:
Whig presidential candidate Winfield Scott and his party pursue an abolitionist course leading toward Salt River and political doom. New York senator and antislavery advocate William Seward appears as a poodle which leads the blindfolded Scott and his entourage of three asses with the heads of prominent abolitionists David Wilmot, Joshua Reed Giddings, and Horace Greeley. They pass a signpost pointing toward Salt River (ahead) and Washington (in the opposite direction). Seward: "Place the utmost confidence in me gentlemen asses . . . for when was I ever known to betray those with whom I was associated!" Scott: "It seems to me that I scent a strange saltness in the air!" Wilmot carries a "Free Soil" burden and is ridden by a black man. The slave exclaims, "Whew Massa Scott! up here you can see de riber shining in de sun!" Ass Giddings bears a sack marked "Abolition," while behind him Greeley carries a load marked "Higher Law." Greeley complains, "Here I am again upon my winding way. I would be glad to get off on my own hook, but this is my only chance for office, and I should like to get hold of another short term." A man on a hill in the background points toward Washington, exclaiming, "Ho there! Ho there! yonder lies your course! you're going astray! They are deaf as a post, or a set of obstinate jack asses!" (Under the man's feet the name "Seward" was inscribed but later obliterated.)

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