During my first term in congress it occurred to me that the “leave to print,” so generally employed by members to include in their speeches statistics, long quotations, etc., might be used to great advantage in spreading our propaganda. I saw no reason why I should not arrange with some of my colleagues to ask leave to print certain portions of Mr. George’s book Protection or Free Trade, as part of our various speeches on a tariff bill. So I approached the following named members and laid my plan before them: William J. Stone of Kentucky, Joseph E. Washington of Tennessee, George W. Fithian of Illinois, Thomas Bowman of Iowa and Jerry Simpson of Kansas. It was agreed among us that each should ask leave to print a specific part of the book, so that the speeches of the six would comprise the entire treatise. The speeches were made between March 11 and April 8, 1892, and when the whole was in print in the Congressional Record it was simply a matter of restoring the original sequence to make the complete volume ready to frank and send out.
I had 100,000 copies printed in pamphlet and announced that I would mail them to all applicants at one cent per copy. This issues was made in May, 1892, and so great was the demand that by November 1 of that year 1,062,000 copies had been printed of which 1,024,000 were distributed before the presidential election and the rest afterwards. Nearly all of these were sent out on application, and most of them addressed to individual subscribers. In some instances political clubs subscribed for thousands of copies, sometimes providing me with the names and addresses of persons to whom they were to be sent; sometimes having them sent in bulk and attending to the distribution themselves. The free traders of the country raised a fund for this work, and we printed a second edition which was retailed at two cents a copy. The sales did not of course cover the cost and the deficit was met by this voluntary fund. We purchased the type and paid for the press work and binding by private subscription. The government through the franking privilege, furnished the postage, but the postage only.
Now the Republican committees had been wont to employ this method of distributing campaign literature, and had sent out tons of pamphlets containing protectionist falsehoods and misleading statistics on economic questions of all kinds – sometimes in such a way that the government paid for the printing as well as the postage. This is one of Privilege’s established methods for distributing it’s propaganda, but when we presumed to invoke the same means to spread a great truth the hue and cry was raised all over the country. What was a perfectly proper action on the part of the enemy was a “low down political trick” when I did it. The newspapers gave the impression that I had shamefully abused my privileges and had by the exercise of black magic or similar means hoodooed a trusting and innocent national government. This impression I never was able to correct.
Have you ever noticed how a story which involves scandal is played up by the press? That is because it is “news.” But a refutation of the scandal is never “news;” consequently it either never gets into the papers at all or is published in small type in the “Letters from the People” department, which department is popular only with the persons who have written the letters.
There were many amusing incidents connected with the distribution of Protection or Free Trade. Republican congressmen would come to me, often with wry faces, and hand over requests for the pamphlets accompanied by small remittances. Others were good natured about it, and it was a common thing to be accosted after this fashion, “Say, Johnson, one of my constituents wants fifty copies of that damn book of yours. I hate to have ’em circulating in my district but I don’t see how I can get out of sending them.”
The first national political convention I ever attended was the Democratic Convention which nominated Cleveland at Chicago in June of 1892, to which I was a district delegate. The committee on resolutions of which Senator Vilas of Wisconsin was chairman was controlled by protection Democrats, and the tariff plank which they were about to report was a pitiful straddle on the question. I thought it was worth while to test the temper of the convention on a more radical plank and I got Colonel Henry Watterson of Kentucky and Honorable Ben T. Cable of Illinois to cooperate with me to this end. We consulted with Lawrence T. Neal of Ohio, a member of the resolutions committee and found him willing to bring in a minority report. Among us we framed the follow plank:
We denounce Republican protection as a fraud, a robbery of the great majority of the American people for the benefit of the few. We declare it to be a fundamental principle of the Democratic party that the federal government had no constitutional power to impose and collect tariff duties, except for the purpose of revenue only, and we demand that the collection of such taxes shall be limited to the necessities of the government when honestly and economically administered. We denounce the McKinley tariff law enacted by the Fifty-first Congress as the culminating atrocity of class legislation; we endorse the efforts made by the Democrats of the present Congress to modify its oppressive features in the direction of free raw materials and cheaper manufactured goods that enter into general consumption and we promise its repeal as one of the beneficent results that will follow the action of the people in entrusting power to the Democratic party. Since the McKinley tariff went into operation there have been ten reductions of the wages of the laboring man to one increase. We deny that there has been any increase of prosperity to the country since that tariff went into operation, and we point to the dullness and distress, the wage reductions and the strikes in the iron trade as the best possible evidence that no such prosperity has resulted from the McKinley Act. We call the attention of thoughtful Americans to the fact that after thirty years of restrictive taxes against the importation of foreign wealth, in exchange for our agricultural surplus the homes and farms of the country have become burdened with a real estate mortgage debt, $2,500,000,000, exclusive of all other forms of indebtedness; that in one of the chief agricultural states of the West there appears a real estate mortgage debt averaging $165 per capita of the total population, and that similar conditions and tendencies are shown to exist in other agricultural exporting states. We denounce a policy that fosters no industry so much as it does that of the sheriff.
I dictated the first sentence with the exception of the word Republican, being content with denouncing protection, without designating any special brand, but Mr. Neal inserted “Republican.” He couldn’t get one other member of the committee to join him in signing his minority report.
Immediately after it was presented to the convention the permanent chairman, William L. Wilson of West Virginia, recognized Colonel Watterson, who supported it in a characteristic speech. The fight was now on. Mr. Cable and I busied ourselves among the delegates urging them to vote for the Neal report, and I kept as close as possible to Chairman Wilson too. Delegate Lamb of Indiana asked a number of times how many names were signed to the minority report but his question wasn’t answered, and the convention didn’t know that it bore one lone signature.
At the close of the debate the chairman recognized me. The convention had grown restive and disorderly and I knew that if I didn’t get the attention of that audience of fifteen thousand with my first words I couldn’t get it at all. I spoke for three minutes and was hoarse for three weeks. The minority report was carried by a vote of 564 to 342. The whole thing was done in less than thirty minutes, Neal, Watterson and I being the only ones who had spoken in favor of it. We had no specific arrangement with Chairman Wilson though he was in sympathy with our efforts. The plank was adopted because the majority of the delegates present preferred it to the one presented by the resolutions committee, and the action brought consternation to Senator Vilas who had paid little attention to the Neal plank thinking it couldn’t possibly prevail, as also to the other managers who were as downcast as our little coterie was jubilant. As we left the hall
William C. Whitney, Cleveland’s representative in the convention, said to me,
“I would rather have seen Cleveland defeated than to have had that fool free trade plank adopted.”
The “fool free trade plank” caused Mr. Cleveland much distress of mind too. Mr. George and I went to Buzzard’s Bay to talk it over with him. We might was well have stayed away so far as getting Mr. Cleveland to express himself was concerned. He talked but he didn’t say anything. He was pleasant and friendly, bore us no ill will for our part in making his platform declare for free trade, but when we came away he had not divulged his views on the question. In his letter of acceptance he made use of the term, “impossible free trade” as a sop to the other side.
In his book Our Presidents and How We Make Them, Colonel A. K. McClure says it was only the masterful management of William C. Whitney that held that convention for Cleveland, and Cleveland himself believed he owed his nomination to Whitney and said so to us on the occasion quoted. I told him that Mr. Whitney deserved no more credit for the action of the convention in this regard than he would for pushed a load of hay that was already well started down a hill.
The repudiation of its platform pledges by the Republican party in the last session of Congress is history repeating itself. Change the name Republican to Democrat and substitute 1894 for 1909 and you have the story of Democratic legislation on the tariff, following the campaign already alluded to in which a million copies of Protection or Free Trade were circulated. The Wilson bill was more viciously protectionist in some of its features than the McKinley law which it succeeded for it took sugar off the free list, and when I protested against it saying that if I did not know better I should be obliged to suppose the “the gentleman from Maine” and his fellows of the minority had hypnotized the majority and written the bill for them, and were making a pretense of opposing it in order to induce Democrats to accept a Republican measure under the delusion that it was a Democratic one, Mr. Reed replied.
“On the contrary I called the attention of the committee to that very bad break the first time I got a look at the bill.”
The McKinley bill and the Wilson bill seemed to be based on opposite principles, but in reality the only difference was that McKinley graciously gave the manufacturers what they desired, while Wilson put them to the inconvenience of fighting to get the things they wanted. But neither of these bills nor any subsequent tariff bill had been framed in the interests of the consumer.
We are constantly hearing it said that the manufacturers get what they want because they have a lobby, and the reason the consumers come short is because they have nobody to represent them at Washington. Nobody to represent them! If Congress were true to the principles of democracy it would be the people’s lobby.
I predicted the defeat of the Democracy as the result of our failure to stand by our party pledges. The prediction was fulfilled. I went down the rest of the ticket and Mr. Burton was again elected to represent the twenty-first district of Ohio. I don’t want to give the impression that I considered myself a political prophet; I didn’t. The fulfillment was just an exception to Colonel Ingersoll’s rule in which I believed then and believe even more strongly now, viz., that in politics there is nothing so uncertain as a sure thing. The fact that I ran several thousand ahead of my ticket must surely be construed as an evidence of the approval of the people of my district of my consistent stand on my platform promises.
When the Wilson bill was under discussion and I moved an amendment putting steel rails on the free list a great howl went up. How could I, a manufacturer of steel rails, seriously make such a proposal? It was in vain that I assured the members of the House that I was not representing my stockholders in Congress but the larger constituency which would be benefited by free trade. When I said quite frankly that I was a monopolist and that so long as I continued in business I should take advantage of all the class legislation enacted by Congress, but that as a member of Congress I should work, speak and vote against such class legislation I was accused of insincerity. That cry of “insincerity” has followed all my public work. I had made my money by monopoly, therefore my opposition to monopoly could not be genuine.
An impecunious writer, a poor labor agitator, an obscure soap-box orator was insincere in his opposition to the system because he had nothing at stake; I, a beneficiary, was insincere because I had everything at stake. An amusing encounter which I once had with a representative of the Chamber of Commerce in Cleveland illustrates this very point admirably. This man was objecting to my stand on some people’s measure and wound up by saying “You can’t be right on this. You have too much money. “Well, what about Peter Witt?” I retorted, naming an advocate of the same measure who was poor, and he replied, “He was too little.” “Will you tell me,” I said, “just what amount of money a man may have before he can be right?” That is the way Privilege reasons.
Now I never professed unselfish motives. I got so much more happiness, so much more satisfaction out of life in promulgating the social theories I learned from Mr. George than I ever got from making money that it was no sacrifice for me to give up the one for the other. But I was still engaged in some big money-making enterprises while I was in Congress and I was more than willing to use the knowledge I had gained in business to confound the advocates of Privilege.
I fought hard to have steel rails put on the free list and knowing Mr. Dalzell of Pennsylvania, as the member most interested in the iron and steel schedule I gave him several days’ notice of what I intended to do, and in the debate yielded him part of my time.
I reasoned that if I contended for free trade in this particular branch of industry with which I was so familiar and in which I was personally interested, it would clear the way for a similar fight on all other free trade amendments. It could not be charged that I was for free trade in every district but my own nor in every industry except the one in which I was myself engaged.
When I spoke of the steel-rail pool Mr. Dalzell surprised me by denying its existence. He said there had been a combination between certain steel rail men, which had been broken up by the refusal of a large number of firms to go into it, and that it had fallen of its own weight but that there was no condition in it for keeping up prices, etc., etc., and that now this pool was no more. Mr. Dalzell was like that secretary of the interior of a later day who went out to investigate the beef trust and came back to Washington from Chicago with the statement that there was no beef trust. He had asked the Armours and they had said, “No.” And so Mr. Dalzell had asked the rail manufacturers whether there was a steel-rail pool and they had said, “No.”
For answer I picked up from my desk a paper which I said was a copy of an agreement proving the existence of the pool. Mr. Dalzell said he was bound to accept my statement, but that he deprecated trusts as much as I did. I retorted that as a business man I didn’t deprecate trusts, I joined them, — but that as a member of Congress I neither represented nor defended them. I said that if it were true as our Republican members were urging that protection was a good thing for labor then Pittsburgh ought to be a very paradise for working men, but the actual fact was that a few days before Mr. Carnegie had sailed for Jerusalem he utilized the tariff to reestablish the steel-rail pool and pay other manufacturers to shut up their works and throw their men out of employment; then came a general cut in wages in all his great establishments; and then he announced himself ready to give as much as five thousand dollars a day to feed the unemployed of Pittsburgh. Privilege doesn’t have to bribe congressmen when it can fool them.
Of course steel rails weren’t put on the free list, and of course the steel-rail pool continued until the necessity for such combination was done away with, when the various concerns represented in them passed into a common ownership.
This merging of various enterprises into one wasn’t bought about so much by the necessity for protection against laws which forbade combinations in restraint of trade, as by the necessity for the mutual protection of the pool members against each other. It was a matter of common knowledge on the inside that their agreements were ruthlessly broken. I have known members of labor unions to starve to carry out their agreements.
While the Wilson bill was under consideration I received a letter from some Cleveland cloak manufacturers requesting me to vote for a specific duty in addition to an ad valorem duty on ladies’ cloaks. The letter had been prepared by politicians and newspaper men for the express purpose of putting me in a hole with my constituents. They knew perfectly well that I wouldn’t promise to vote for the duty, but they thought my answer would give them the opportunity they wanted of coming back at my free trade talk with a protectionist argument which would make me ridiculous. I learned that the big protectionists of my district were fairly hugging themselves in joyful anticipation of the sorry spectacle I would make. They were about to silence me forever in that district at least on the subject of free trade.
I explained the matter to Mr. George and he framed a letter in reply, which was given wide publicity as part of my speech on the Wilson bill. That letter was one of the finest pieces of writing Mr. George ever did, and if anything deserves a place in this story it does. It was as follows:
Cleveland, Ohio, Dec. 29, 1893.
To Joseph Lachnect, Emil Weisels, Joseph Frankel and others, tailors and tailoresses in the employ of Messrs. Landesman, Hirscheimer & Co., cloak manufacturers of Cleveland.
Ladies and Gentlemen:
I have received your communication and that from Messrs. Landesman, Hirscheimer & Co., to which you refer, asking me to vote against the Wilson tariff bill, unless it is amended by adding to the duty of 45 per cent. ad valorem, which it proposes, an additional duty of 49 ½ cents per pound.
I shall do nothing of the kind. My objection to the Wilson bill is not that its duties are too low, but that they are too high. I will do all I can to cut its duties down, but I will strenuously oppose putting them up. You ask me to vote to make cloaks artificially dear. How can I do that without making it harder for those who need cloaks to get cloaks? Even if this would benefit you, would it not injure others? There are many cloak-makers in Cleveland, it is true, but they are few as compared with the cloak-users. Would you consider me an honest representative if I would thus consent to injure the many for the benefit of the few, even though the few in this case were yourselves?
And you ask me to demand, in addition to a monstrous ad valorem duty of 45 per cent., a still more monstrous weight duty of 49 ½ cents a pound – a weight duty that will make the poorest sewing-girl pay as much tax on her cheap shoddy cloak as Mrs. Astor or Mrs. Vanderbilt would be called on to pay on a cloak of the finest velvets and embroideries! Do you really want me to vote to thus put the burden of taxation on the poor while letting the rich escape? Whether you want me to or not, I will not do it.
That, as your employers say, a serviceable cloak can be bought in Berlin at $1.20 affords no reason in my mind for keeping up the tariff. On the contrary, it is the strongest reason for abolishing it altogether. There are lots of women in this country who would be rejoiced to get cloaks so cheaply; lots of women who must now pinch and strain to get a cloak; lots of women who cannot now afford to buy cloaks, and must wear old or cast-off garments or shiver with cold. Is it not common justice that we should abolish every tax that makes it harder for them to clothe themselves?
No, I will do nothing to keep up duties. I will do everything I can to cut them down. I do not believe in taxing one citizen for the purpose of enriching another citizen. You elected me on my declaration that I was opposed to protection, believing it but a scheme for enabling the few to rob the many, and that I was opposed even to a tariff for revenue, believing that the only just way of raising revenues if by the single tax upon land values.
So long as I continue to represent you in Congress I shall act on the principle of equal rights to all and special privileges to none, and whenever I can abolish any of the taxes that are now levied on labor or the products of labor I will do it, and where I cannot abolish I will do my best to reduce. When you get tired of that you can elect someone in my place who suits you better. If you want duties kept up, you many get an honest protectionist who will serve you; you cannot get a honest free trader.
But I believe that you have only to think of the matter to see that in adhering to principle I will be acting for the best interests of all working men and women, yourselves among the number. This demand for protective duties for the benefit of the American working man is the veriest sham. You cannot protect labor by putting import duties on goods. Protection makes it harder for the masses of our people to live. It may increase the profits of favored capitalists; it may build up trusts and create great fortunes, but it cannot raise wages. You know for yourselves that what your employers pay you in wages does not depend on what any tariff may enable them to make, but on what they can get others to take your places for.
You have to stand the competition of the labor market. Why, then, should you try to shut yourselves out from the advantages that the competition of the goods market should give you? It is not protection that makes wages higher here than in Germany. They were higher here before we had any protection, and in the saturnalia of protection that has reigned here for some years past you have seen wages go down, until the country is now crowded with tramps and hundreds of thousands of men are not supported by charity. What made wages higher than in Germany is the freer access to land, the natural means of all productions, and as that is closed up and monopoly sets in wages must decline. What labor needs is not protection, but justice; not legalized restrictions which permit one set of men to tax their fellows, but the free opportunity for all for the exertion of their own powers. The real struggle for the rights of labor and for those fair wages that consist in the full earnings of labor is the struggle for freedom and against monopolies and restrictions; and in the effort to cut down protection it is timidly beginning. I shall support the Wilson bill with all my ability and all my strength.
Yours very respectfully,
TOM L. JOHNSON.
Day after day passed. No answer came from Cleveland. It was my turn to be amused now for the reply never did come.
One of the principal movers in the matter, an experience newspaper man connected with the leading Republican daily in my district, told me some time afterwards that he had wasted reams of paper and burned much midnight oil in a fruitless attempt to answer. “But,” he said, “I’m just as much a protectionist as ever only it won’t work on ladies’ cloaks.”