F. Victor Gillam's political cartoon, "Our Protection Levee," published April 26, 1890, depicted the fierce debate raging in Congress over raising rates on imported goods. On the verge of passing the House, the Tariff Act of 1890, commonly known as the McKinley tariff bill for its main sponsor, Representative William McKinley, faced stiff opposition in the Senate from "free trade" Democrats like Joseph Blackburn of Kentucky, George Vest of Missouri, and Arthur Pue Gorman of Maryland. They argued that it would create monopolies and cause significant inflation. In his cartoon Gillam drew the supporters of free trade as dark waters threatening to breech the nation's levee.
Gillam sympathized with tariff proponents, known as "protectionists," drawing them as the nation's levee. "If it is washed away," he wrote, "the country will be deluged with foreign manufactures." Hailing from manufacturing states in the Northeast and Midwest, Republican Senators John Ingalls of Kansas, George Edmunds of Vermont, John Sherman of Ohio, and William Frye of Maine, all of whom are shown as a part of the protective levee, supported the bill.
These senators shielded Uncle Sam and Miss Democracy--symbols of the nation-from the perilous free trade waters. The levee of senators also protected buildings directly behind them labeled "factory" and "manufactory" from being flooded by foreign imports.
The Senate approved the tariff on September 30, 1890, and it was signed into law by President Benjamin Harrison the following day. The tariff raised duties on most imported goods to an average of almost fifty percent.
Byrd, Robert C. The Senate, 1789-1989: Addresses on the History of the United States Senate. Volume I: Addresses on the History of the United States Senate, 1789-1992. Washington, DC: GPO, 1989-1994.
Irwin, Douglas A. "Tariff Incidence in America's Gilded Age." The Journal of Economic History 67, no. 3 (2007): 582-607.
Reitano, Joanne R. The Tariff Question: The Great Debate of 1888. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994.
"The McKinley Tariff of 1890," Office of the Clerk, accessed June 23, 2011.