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Protectionist Empire: Trade, Tariffs, and United States Foreign Policy, 1890–1914

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 October 2017

Benjamin O. Fordham
Department of Political Science, Binghamton University
E-mail address:


Between 1890 and 1914, the United States acquired overseas colonies, built a battleship fleet, and intervened increasingly often in Latin America and East Asia. This activism is often seen as the precursor to the country's role as a superpower after 1945 but actually served very different goals. In contrast to its pursuit of a relatively liberal international economic order after 1945, the United States remained committed to trade protection before 1914. Protectionism had several important consequences for American foreign policy on both economic and security issues. It led to a focus on less developed areas of the world that would not export manufactured goods to the United States instead of on wealthier European markets. It limited the tactics available for promoting American exports, forcing policymakers to seek exclusive bilateral agreements or unilateral concessions from trading partners instead of multilateral arrangements. It inhibited political cooperation with other major powers and implied an aggressive posture toward these states. The differences between this foreign policy and the one the United States adopted after 1945 underscore the critical importance not just of the search for overseas markets but also of efforts to protect the domestic market.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2017 

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Acknowledgments: I am grateful to the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress for providing me with an ideal place to conduct much of the research for this work. The National Science Foundation also supported this project through grant SES-1022546. I benefitted from comments and suggestions received during presentations at Cornell University, the Library of Congress, Arizona State University, George Washington University, and Mary Washington University, as well as to my colleagues in the Department of Political Science at Binghamton University, who commented on earlier stages of this work. I am solely responsible for any remaining errors of fact or interpretation.


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44. Williams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, 35.

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49. Ibid., 54. American efforts to gained privileged access to Latin American markets while calling for nondiscrimination in East Asia present a similar contradiction.


50. Ibid., 10.


51. Ibid., 51.


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89. National Association of Manufacturers, Proceedings of the National Reciprocity Convention, 41.

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108. Adams's “The New Struggle for Life among Nations” is a good example of his thinking. (Adams, America's Economic Supremacy, 26–53.) Writing about the past, Mahan's tone was less apocalyptic. Nevertheless, he also viewed military competition for control of trade as a constant feature of human affairs. Mahan's The Influence of Sea Power upon History opens with the following observation about the benefits of seaborne commerce: “To secure one's own people a disproportionate share of such benefits, every effort was made to exclude others, either by the peaceful legislative methods of monopoly or prohibitory regulations, or when these failed, by direct violence” (Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1).

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110. Conant, “The United States as a World Power, I,” 608.

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114. Perhaps because they tended to take American security concerns less seriously, foreign observers had long viewed the Monroe Doctrine as an effort to gain commercial control of the Western Hemisphere. The London Economist remarked on American efforts to establish “the Monroe doctrine in commerce for the whole Western Hemisphere” in 1886 (“The Hide and Leather Industries,” The Economist, April 10, 1886, 6). The Literary Digest summarized the comments of an Austrian legislator along the same lines in 1892: “The American policy is that of a Great Power. Washington said to his countrymen: Take no part in European quarrels. Monroe came and said: No European state shall in the future found a new empire on this continent. Garfield and Blaine have gone a step beyond and said: The United States will extend its wings over the whole American continent, North and South, and will form a ‘Zollverein’ of the free countries of America.” (“The Commercial Policy of the World,” Literary Digest, April 16, 1892, 647.)

115. On the details of the dispute see LaFeber, New Empire, 242–83; Hannigan, New World Power, 57–60; Healy, US Expansionism, 24–28; McDonald, The Invisible Hand of Peace, 157–62.

116. Wheeler, Joseph and Grosvenor, Charles H., “Our Duty in the Venezuelan Crisis,” North American Review 161, no. 468 (November 1895): 628–33Google Scholar.

117. McDonald, The Invisible Hand of Peace, 168–71; Widenor, William C., Henry Cabot Lodge and the Search for an American Foreign Policy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), 105–6Google Scholar.

118. Lodge, Henry Cabot, “England, Venezuela, and the Monroe Doctrine,” North American Review 160, no. 463 (June 1895): 658 Google Scholar.

119. Lodge, Henry Cabot, “Our Blundering Foreign Policy,” Forum 19, no. 1 (March 1895): 8, 12–3, 14, 15Google Scholar.

120. Atkinson, “The Cost of an Anglo-American War,” 74.

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123. There is little evidence that this assumption changed until well after the outbreak of World War I. American leaders initially regarded the war in Europe with rather detached concern. Unlike most American diplomats, the U.S. consul in Budapest decided that the crisis of July 1914 was at least important enough to write about to Washington. However, he sent his message by regular mail out to avoid the cost of a cable transmission. It arrived on July 27, the day before the war began (West, The Department of State on the Eve of the First World War, 1).

124. Kennan, American Diplomacy, 4–5.

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126. Lodge, “England, Venezuela, and the Monroe Doctrine,” 651. Others writing on the Monroe Doctrine after the Venezuelan Crisis of 1895 took much the same position, arguing that it ruled out American intervention in Europe. See, for example, Jones, Robert Ellis, “Washington's Farewell Address and Its Applications,” Forum 28, no. 1 (September 1899): 1328 Google Scholar; Chambers, Julius, “The Monroe Doctrine in the Balance,” Forum 46, no. 5 (November 1911): 525–35Google Scholar; Taylor, Hannis, “A Review of the Cuban Question in Its Economic, Political, and Diplomatic Aspects,” North American Review 165, no. 492 (November 1897): 610–35Google Scholar; and Moore, John Bassett, “The Monroe Doctrine,” Political Science Quarterly 11, no. 1 (March 1896): 129 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

127. Sherwood, Sidney, “An Alliance with England the Basis of a Rational Foreign Policy,” Forum 21, no. 1 (March 1896): 89100 Google Scholar.

128. Then as now, scholars like Sherwood could write what they liked, but questioning the Monroe Doctrine was dangerous for political leaders. For example, in 1906, Professor John W. Burgess gave a lecture in Germany arguing that both the Monroe Doctrine and the protective tariff were “almost obsolete.” Burgess was a professor at Columbia University where he had founded Political Science Quarterly, and was then acting as Theodore Roosevelt Professor of American History and Institutions at the University of Berlin. His statements were widely attacked by American editorialists who mistakenly interpreted them as official policy because of Burgess's title. The administration quickly distanced itself from these comments, which reportedly caused the President so much irritation that “it probably could not be expressed in polite language.” (“A ‘Roosevelt Professor's’ Repudiation of the Monroe Doctrine,” Literary Digest, November 10, 1906.)

129. Procter, John R., “Isolationism or Imperialism,” Forum 26, no. 1 (September 1898): 23 Google Scholar.

130. See, for example, Smith, Goldwin, “The Moral of the Cuban War,” Forum 26, no. 3 (November 1898): 292 Google Scholar; Mahan, Alfred Thayer and Beresford, Charles, “Possibilities of an Anglo-American Reunion,” North American Review 159, no. 456 (November 1894): 565–67Google Scholar.

131. Irwin and Kroszner, “Interests, Institutions, and Ideology in Securing Policy Change.”

132. Kindleberger, World in Depression, 236; Carr, Edward Hallett, The Twenty Years’ Crisis, 1919–1939 (New York: Harper & Row, 1964), 234 Google Scholar.

133. Tooze, The Deluge, 334.

134. For example, Wolman, Most Favored Nation.

135. Frieden, Jeffry A., “Sectoral Conflict and Foreign Economic Policy, 1914–1940,” International Organization 42, no. 1 (January 1988): 5990 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

136. Kindleberger, World in Depression; Krasner, “State Power and the Structure of International Trade.”

137. Fordham, “Economic Interests and Congressional Voting on American Foreign Policy”; Fordham, “Economic Interests and Public Support for American Global Activism.”

138. See, for example, Ikenberry, G. John, After Victory: Institutions, Strategic Restraint, and the Rebuilding of Order after Major Wars (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001)Google Scholar.

139. For example, Klingberg, Frank L., “The Historical Alternation of Moods in American Foreign Policy,” World Politics 4, no. 2 (1952): 239–73CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Pollins, Brian M. and Schweller, Randall L., “Linking the Levels: The Long Wave and Shifts in U.S. Foreign Policy, 1790–1993,” American Journal of Political Science 43, no. 2 (1999): 431–64CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

140. Thompson, J. A., “William Appleman Williams and the ‘American Empire,’Journal of American Studies 7, no. 1 (April 1973): 102104 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Field, “American Imperialism,” 645–46.

141. Field, “American Imperialism,” 645.

142. See, for example, Boot, Max, The Savage Wars of Peace (New York: Basic Books, 2003)Google Scholar; Kagan, , Dangerous Nation; Walter Russell Mead, Special Providence (New York: Knopf, 2001)Google Scholar.

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