Harriet Martineau condemns tariffs as a “vicious aristocratic principle” designed to harm the ordinary working man and woman (1861)

Harriet Martineau

In a series of letters written to Mrs. Chapman in 1861 Harriet Martineau argued that tariff protection not only harmed foreign workers but domestic American workers as well, by means of what she termed this “vicious aristrocratic principle”:

I perceive you ground your disapprobation of the protective system on the injustice and unkindness to foreign peoples. This is a very strong and quite indisputable ground, but it is not the one I have at all had in view at this time, or wished to bring forward in discussing the matter in the “Standard” or elsewhere. I protest against the vicious aristocratic principle, and the rank oppression exercised over the American people at large, for the selfish interest of certain classes. It is true your shippers and merchants are concerned in and injured by every injury inflicted on foreign commerce; but it is a graver consideration to my mind that every workingman in the country is injured for the illicit benefit of wealthier classes. Popular ignorance alone can have permitted it thus long.

In the 19th century there were a number of popularisers of free market thinking who took the ideas of an Adam Smith or a Jean-Baptiste Say and made them more approachable to a broader audience. In England there was Richard Cobden, Harriet Martineau, and Thomas Hodgskin. In France there was the incomparable Frédéric Bastiat. Martineau is especially noteworthy for a number of of reasons, perhaps most notably because as a woman she found it particularly hard to make a living as a full-time author. She did not let her gender or her precarious way of life prevent her from being an outspoken and radical defender of free market ideas. For example, in 1861 the American Civil War divided English liberals into two camps, the free traders and states rights advocates who supported the South, and the anti-slavery abolitionists who favored the North (reluctantly perhaps because of its strong protectionist stance). Martineau took the radical position of arguing that, in supposedly “democratic” America, tariffs were class based and reflected a “vicious aristocratic principle” which benefited the “selfish interest of certain classes” at the expence of ordinatry working people.