Does America need factories?
That question arises time and again throughout the history of the republic, and it is still with us today.
The British said no. They believed the colonies’ “comparative advantage” came from producing ore and crops, the raw materials that would feed Britain’s mills and the workers who toiled in them.
George Washington said yes, and ordered his treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton, to devise a plan to nurture industry in the United States. The founders believed the new nation could not be truly independent if Americans relied on others for manufactured goods.
The first act of the first Congress imposed a tax on imports – a tariff. It served the dual purpose of raising money to fund the government and encouraging the production of American goods in American workshops that were not taxed.
Thomas Jefferson said no. He envisioned America being an Arcadian paradise of small yeoman farmers, free from “dark Satanic mills.”
Then came the War of 1812. With British troops burning the White House, Jefferson saw the light, so to speak. He changed his opinion, writing, “We must now place the manufacturer by the side of the agriculturalist. … Manufactures are now as necessary to our independence as to our comfort.”
The question arose again during the Civil War. Southern planters said no. They were content growing cotton and tobacco and preferred buying manufactured goods from Europe, which was also the largest market for their slave crops.
Abraham Lincoln and his chief economic adviser, Henry Charles Carey, said yes. They developed our own manufacturing industries through the American System of capitalism, and a half-century later America was the richest nation and greatest industrial power on earth.
Today, President Trump’s defense of American steel, aluminum and technology against the predatory trade policies of China and other nations has raised the ire of some farm-state senators.
They fear a potential loss of export markets for the commodity crops produced on large corporate farms in their states. Some have even gone so far as to propose curtailing the commander in chief’s constitutional and statutory national security powers.
In fact, farm versus industry is a false choice – America needs both.
Andrew Jackson understood that having Americans employed in workshops creates a rich market for the food and fiber of America’s farmers, the most productive in the world.
The sectional conflict of earlier times is manifested now in the debate over biofuel policy.
A federal regulation designed to promote ethanol, the renewable fuel, has had the unintended consequence of bankrupting independent oil refiners.
President Trump reached a compromise that saves the good-paying jobs of refinery workers in the Northeast while promoting the wider use and export of ethanol made from Midwestern corn.
Senators from all sections of America should support the president’s common-sense biofuel policy.
It makes farmers, factory workers and our nation more prosperous.
As Thomas Jefferson said, the manufacturer and the agriculturalist stand side by side, not in opposition.