Grand Old Protectionists: Calvin Coolidge and the Full Dinner Pail

November 19, 2014

By John Hendrickson

The Grand Old Party (GOP) has changed tremendously since its founding in the mid-19th century in Ripon, Wisconsin. There are few issues on which the GOP has evolved more than trade policy. Today a solid majority of Republicans are supporters of free trade. This was not the case for most of the GOP’s history. In fact the principle of protectionism was a sacred pillar of the Republican Party. This philosophy was carried over from the Federalist and Whig economic programs of Alexander Hamilton and Henry Clay. Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican elected president, championed a protective tariff. A tariff was used both for revenues and to protect the American economy from Europe.

The political economy of the Republican Party, as Calvin Coolidge described, was shaped by the Federalists and Whigs:

The party now in power in this country, through its present declaration of principles, through the traditions which inherited from its predecessors, the Federalists and the Whigs, through their achievements and through its own, is representative of those policies which were adopted under the lead of Alexander Hamilton[1]

This philosophy also consisted of a commitment to sound money as exemplified by the gold standard, low levels of taxation and regulation, balanced budgets, and a commitment to property rights and economic liberty. These principles along with the protective tariff defined the political economy of the Republican Party. The doctrine of protectionism was not just putting “America first,” but also protecting the entire economy and labor by preserving manufacturing and solid wages for workers.

During the late 19th century Ohio’s Republican president William McKinley became the chief defender of both “protection and the gold standard.”[2]  Coolidge argued that McKinley’s policies brought forth a period of economic prosperity owing to the policies of trade protection and strengthening the gold standard. As Coolidge stated:

He [McKinley] at once revised the tariff and strengthened the law establishing the gold standard. Prosperity immediately returned. There was not only a domestic market but immense exports. The foreign trade increased more under the first term of McKinley than it had ever increased in any other four years.[3]

Coolidge also noted that “when all these things were done, the time was ripe for the great economic and industrial development of our country:”

It was this situation, this opportunity, that called forth William McKinley. Taking up again the work of Hamilton and Clay, because commercial problems necessarily had been laid aside for the solution of the more fundamental problems of freedom, McKinley re-established their principles, and under his leadership the government readopted their policies.[4]

The result of McKinley’s policies as Coolidge noted was the “application of his principle of a protective tariff, which furnished the initial opportunity for laying down of the greatest industries of America and the development of her entire resources.”[5] Coolidge, just as McKinley argued, that protectionism benefited not just business, but the farmer and laborer as well. “Cheap goods meant cheap men,” stated Coolidge.[6] The rallying cry of protectionism in the GOP came under the slogan the “Full Dinner Pail,” which was utilized by William McKinley during his presidential campaigns and by later Republican presidential candidates including Calvin Coolidge. The “Full Dinner Pail” represented economic prosperity, high wages, and a sound economy.

During the 1920s tariff policy followed the McKinley course under Presidents Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover. The Fordney-McCumber Tariff Act became the major tariff legislation of the Harding and Coolidge administrations. Even during his post-presidency Coolidge continued to defend the policy of protection:

The greatest asset of our whole economic system is its effect upon commerce, agriculture, industry, the wage earner, and the farmer, and practically all our producers and distributors, is our incomparable home market. It has always been a fundamental principle of the Republican Party that this market should be reserved in the first instance for the consumption of our domestic products…Our only defense against the cheap production, low wages and low standard of living which exist abroad, and our only method of maintaining our own standards, is through a protective tariff. We need protection as a national policy, to be applied wherever it is required.[7]

The “Full Dinner Pail” platform of McKinley, Harding, and Coolidge resulted in a period of economic expansion and growth, which benefited not only business, but the middle class. As columnist and former Republican presidential candidate Patrick J. Buchanan wrote:

Protectionism is the structuring of trade policy to protect the national sovereignty, ensure economic self-reliance, and “prosper America first.” It was the policy of the Republican Party from Abraham Lincoln to Calvin Coolidge. America began that era in 1860 with one half of Britain’s production and ended it producing more than all of Europe put together. Is this a record to be ashamed of?[8]

The American first trade policy of protectionism through tariffs was not only a constitutional way of protecting national sovereignty, but also putting the economic health of the nation first. The policy of protectionism was often debated within Republican circles, but it was a policy that many took seriously as a key component to an overall successful economic program.

As Robert Lighthizer, who served as a trade representative in President Ronald Reagan’s administration wrote:

Conservative statesman from Alexander Hamilton to Ronald Reagan sometimes supported protectionism and at other times they leaned toward lowering barriers. But they always understood that trade policy was merely a tool for building a strong and independent country with a prosperous middle class.[9]

Calvin Coolidge was such an American conservative statesman who followed in the footsteps of Hamilton, Lincoln, and McKinley.


[1] Calvin Coolidge, “Our Heritage from Hamilton,” Address on the Anniversary of the Birthday of Alexander Hamilton, Before the Hamilton Club, at Chicago,” January 11, 1922, in The Price of Freedom: Speeches and Addresses by Calvin Coolidge, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1924, p. 109.

[2][2] Calvin Coolidge, “William McKinley: At the Convention of Spanish War Veterans, Saunders Theatre, Harvard University, Cambridge, April 17, 1923,” in The Price of Freedom: Speeches and Addressed by Calvin Coolidge, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1924, pp. 304-305.

[3] Ibid., p. 305.

[4] Ibid., pp. 307-308.

[5] Ibid., p. 308.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Calvin Coolidge, “The Republican Case, The Saturday Evening Post, September 10, 1932,” in Calvin Coolidge: A Documentary Biography, edited by David Pietrusza, Church & Reid Books, 2013, p. 348.

[8] Patrick J. Buchanan, “Bush’s Black List?”, June 5, 2008, <> accessed on November 18, 2014.

[9] Robert E. Lighthizer, “Grand Old Protectionists,” New York Times, March 6, 2008, <> accessed on November 18, 2014.

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