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Tax History Lesson: The McKinley Tariff

4 min readBy: Alicia Hansen

Reading about history in textbooks is useful, but newspaper articles, photos, cartoons, drawings, and other artifacts can bring a topic to life in a way that a textbook can’t.

When we set out to write a blog post on the McKinley TariffTariffs are taxes imposed by one country on goods or services imported from another country. Tariffs are trade barriers that raise prices and reduce available quantities of goods and services for U.S. businesses and consumers. , we were excited to find both a New York Times article from 1890 and a Harper’s Weekly cartoon from 1888.

First, the history lesson: Tariffs are taxA tax is a mandatory payment or charge collected by local, state, and national governments from individuals or businesses to cover the costs of general government services, goods, and activities. es levied on foreign goods, generally with the intention of increasing the consumption of goods manufactured at home. At various times in 19th-century America, tariffs were levied on sugar, wool, cotton, and certain metals.

Before becoming president, William McKinley served in the House of Representatives, representing Ohio. He was a fan of tariffs, and a large part of his legacy is the tariff bill passed in 1890, introduced in a committee he chaired. It became known as the McKinley Tariff. From Ohio History Central:

William McKinley was a member of the Republican Party. During the late nineteenth century, Republicans strongly supported tariffs to protect growing industries within the United States from foreign competition. The McKinley Tariff was passed into law in 1890, and it dramatically increased the tax rate on foreign products. While many business owners supported this legislation, American consumers generally opposed it, as prices increased for goods. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Republican Party and the Democratic Party continuously battled over tariffs. American opposition to the McKinley Tariff was so high that President Benjamin Harrison, a Republican, may have lost reelection in 1892 partly because of his support for the tax.

Read more about the tariffs here.

Also, a fascinating excerpt from a New York Times article, October 21, 1890 (PDF):


Subjoined will be found a large amount of information, easily comprehensible, as to the practical workings of the McKinley tariff, all of it answering to the questions whether the tariff imposes a tax upon American consumers and whether greater burdens are put upon the people of this country by the new tariff law than they were bearing previous to its going into effect. …


The Republican campaign orators and pamphleteers say that the various import duties levied by Congress are paid by the foreigners who send goods to America, and they deny point blank that the price of any article which may be called a necessary expense will be increased to Americans by the operation of the new tariff law. Fortunately for those who believe in tariff reforms, the question as to who pays the tariff taxes, and likewise the pleas which are made in answer to this question by the partisan defenders of the new law, may be referred to the arbitrament of incontestable facts. It is no longer necessary to meet theories with theories. Let the facts, which are multiplying every day, tell who it is that pays the onerous tariff taxes. They will answer that the American people pay these taxes and that the burden of them rests most heavily upon the poor, inasmuch as there are very few of the necessities of life the prices of which are not increasing on account of the McKinley tariff.


It is the testimony of all persons engaged in the business of supplying men’s clothing that prices are to be greatly advanced during the coming year and in respect to some things advances in price have already been made.

Brokaw Brothers of this city, manufacturers and wholesale and retail dealers in men’s clothing, say: “On our present stock, there will be no advance, but when our goods begin to cost us more, that is to say, when the tariff changes have to be met on new importations, we shall of course advance our prices. Probably the advance will be in the neighborhood of 10 per cent.

Finally, nothing beats a picture. From Harper’s Weekly, 32:500 (July 7, 1888), archived at the Library of Congress:

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Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [Control #:cai1996002826/PP]

TITLE: Mr. McKinley presents a counter attraction to his “all wool” suit of clothing

CREATOR: Rogers, W. A. (William Allen), 1854-1931, artist.

Variant title on verso: The McKinley ‘all wool’ incident revised to suit the times.

“If you don’t see what you want, ask for it” on sign; “Suit of war taxed common cloth. Tariff 89%” on coat; “Untaxed whiskey, 20 [cents] gal.” on jug.

CALL NUMBER:CAI – Rogers, no. 65 (A size) [P&P]