In "Industrial Policy Comes Full Circle" (Dec. 15), Clyde Prestowitz (Wall Street Journal, 2022-12-11, 2022-22-15 print edition p. R17):

Lincoln said: "I don't know much about tariffs, but I do know that when we buy steel abroad, the foreigner gets the money and we get the steel, but when we buy steel made in America, we get the steel and the money too."

Did Lincoln say the above?

  • 1
    obvious point: mass steel manufacture wasn't really a thing until after Lincoln was dead. Bessimer didn't really gt rolling until c. 1870
    – Yorik
    Dec 20, 2022 at 15:47
  • If "getting the money" means "keeping the money" I think he was right, but (at least ideally) to spend the money you got to have it first. So if Americans buy in America, the amount of money won't change (likewise for the steel mined in America).
    – U. Windl
    Jan 7, 2023 at 22:05

2 Answers 2



From Frank Taussig (1914), "Abraham Lincoln on the Tariff: A Myth":

It seems certain that the phrase is apocryphal. There is no evidence that Lincoln ever used it. ... By dint of repetition it has come to be associated with Lincoln almost as much as the cherry tree is associated with Washington. So crude is the reasoning (if such it can be called), so vulgarly fallacious is the antithesis, that we must hope that it will cease to be invested with the sanction of a venerated name.

A bit more from Taussig:

The very first mention which we have found is in 1894, in the American Economist, a weekly protectionist sheet published in New York ...:

"Lincoln's first speech on the tariff question was short and to the point. He said he did not pretend to be learned in political economy, but he thought that he knew enough to know that 'when an American paid twenty dollars for steel to an English manufacturer, America had the steel and England had the twenty dollars. But when he paid twenty dollars for the steel to an American manufacturer, America had both the steel and the twenty dollars.'" ...

the phrase was not current before 1894 ...

But after 1900 it turns up repeatedly ...

After the very first appearance, the commodity mentioned seems to be invariably rails, — sometimes iron rails, sometimes steel rails. ...

The first appearance for express campaign use appears to be in 1904. ... In the Campaign Book of 1904, there is an extended quotation from Lincoln's tariff notes of 1846-47 (referred to a moment ago) and then at the close we find: -

"On another occasion Mr. Lincoln is quoted as saying: 'I am not posted on the tariff, but I know that if I give my wife twenty dollars to buy a cloak and she buys one made in free-trade England, we have the cloak, but England has the twenty dollars; while if she buys a cloak made in the protected United States, we have the cloak and the twenty dollars.'"


In the century-plus since Taussig (1914), this nonsensical "Lincoln quote" has been repeated many more times (usually with some slight alterations), usually by those with a poor understanding of economics (and hence for whom the quote has appeal), and most recently in late 2022 by Clyde Prestowitz in the Wall Street Journal. (Today if you Google "lincoln tariff quote", Taussig (1914) appears as the first result. So it's quite amazing that the "quote" is still being repeated as fact.)

  • 4
    The first attribution to Lincoln might have been 1894, but the 1885 book Graab says "if we buy £ 1000 worth of goods from abroad , the foreigner gets the money - or the money's worth , in some shape or form - and the foreign workman gets the work he wages ; while if the articles are produced in England , we have the goods , we have the work , and we keep the money too ." google.com/books/edition/Gra%C3%A4b/…
    – DavePhD
    Dec 18, 2022 at 1:27
  • 5
    "So crude is the reasoning (if such it can be called), so vulgarly fallacious is the antithesis, that …" — what exactly is the fallacy? Dec 19, 2022 at 4:22
  • 11
    @RayButterworth IMO, the fallacy is the omission of the counterbalancing facts that when buying from abroad, we don't use up our own steel (i.e., we gain the steel we bought without diminution of our existing supply of steel or its input materials), and the workers who would have made/processed the steel domestically will instead have time and energy to do something else productive that they couldn't have otherwise.
    – nanoman
    Dec 19, 2022 at 5:51
  • 5
    @RayButterworth: Ask the Q at Econ or elsewhere. But consider this quote that I assure you is also by Lincoln: when I buy a car from a stranger outside my household, the stranger gets the money and I get the car, but when I buy a car made by my wife, we get the car and the money too.
    – user62611
    Dec 19, 2022 at 7:32
  • 3
    @paulj And Adam Smith's view as well. It's frequently conveniently omitted from discussion of the idea these days, but Smith's famous "invisible hand" came specifically from a discussion about the benefits of keeping the scope of your economy local when possible and "preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry." Dec 20, 2022 at 14:03

This was debunked in 1914 by Abraham Lincoln on the Tariff: A Myth The Quarterly Journal of Economics Vol. 28, No. 4 (Aug., 1914), pp. 814-820:

THOSE who have followed the campaign literature on the tariff during recent years will have become familiar with a phrase attributed to Abraham Lincoln. The following version is taken from Curtiss's Industrial Development of Nations (1912), a pretentious three-volume publication, in which are collected indiscriminately all sorts of protectionist arguments. Under a portrait of Lincoln this is printed: - " I do not know much about the tariff, but I know this much, when we buy manufactured goods abroad, we get the goods and the foreigner gets the money. When we buy the manufactured goods at home, we get both the goods and the money. No reference is given by Curtiss to Lincoln's writings; nor is such a reference given in any place where I have found the phrase quoted. A careful examination of the various editions of Lincoln's published works brings to light nothing that remotely resembles it. There is nothing in either of the two editions of his writings put together by Nicolay and Hay, nor is there anything in the so called Federal Edition. Nicolay and Hay's Life yields nothing of the sort, nor any of the biographies. So with Lincoln's Speeches in Congress and his Messages to Congress. There is no lack, to be sure, of references to the tariff by Lincoln. He began his political career as a Whig, and remained a protectionist; tho during the decade preceding the war his political insight led him to put it aside as an issue on which to appeal to the people. Those who are interested in the history of the. tariff controversy may find it worth while to turn to some notes of his, written in 1846-67, containing a sketch of an address on the tariff. Here the main thought is that labor given to transporting a commodity from foreign countries is wasted, if the commodity can be produced within the country with as little labor as elsewhere.' This may be an echo of some of Carey's well-known utterances; and it could be made the text for some explanation of the principle of comparative cost. A passage of a similar sort is in an address made at Pittsburg in 1861, indicating that Lincoln had kept this particular turn of reasoning in mind. But there is not the slightest suggestion of the much-quoted phrase.

In the actual 15 February 1861 speech Lincoln says concerning tariffs:

it seems a fitting time to indulge in a few remarks upon the important question of a tariff---a subject of great magnitude, and one which is attended with many difficulties, owing to the great variety of interests which it involves. So long as direct taxation for the support of government is not resorted to, a tariff is necessary. The tariff is to the government what a meal is to the family; but, while this is admitted, it still becomes necessary to modify and change its operations according to new interests and new circumstances. So far there is little difference of opinion among politicians, but the question as to how far imposts may be adjusted for the protection of home industry, gives rise to various views and objections. I must confess that I do not understand this subject in all its multiform bearings, but I promise you that I will give it my closest attention, and endeavor to comprehend it more fully. And here I may remark that the Chicago platform contains a plank upon this subject, which I think should be regarded as law for the incoming administration. In fact, this question, as well as all other subjects embodied in that platform, should not be varied from what we gave the people to understand would be our policy when we obtained their votes. Permit me, fellow citizens, to read the tariff plank of the Chicago platform, or rather, to have it read in your hearing by one who has younger eyes than I have.

Mr. Lincoln's private Secretary then read section twelfth of the Chicago platform, as follows:

That, while providing revenue for the support of the General Government by duties upon imposts, sound policy requires such an adjustment of the imposts as to encourage the development of the industrial interest of the whole country, and we commend that policy of national exchanges which secures to the working men liberal wages, to agriculture remunerating prices, to mechanics and manufacturers an adequate reward for their skill, labor and enterprise, and to the nation commercial prosperity and independence.

Mr. Lincoln continued---Now, fellow-citizens, I must confess that there are shades of difference in construing even this plank of the platform. But I am not now intending to discuss these differences, but merely to give you some general ideas upon this subject. I have long thought that if there be any article of necessity which can be produced at home with as little or nearly the same labor as abroad, it would be better to protect that article. Labor is the true standard of value. If a bar of iron, got out of the mines of England, and a bar of iron taken from the mines of Pennsylvania, be produced at the same cost, it follows that if the English bar be shipped from Manchester to Pittsburg, and the American bar from Pittsburg to Manchester, the cost of carriage is appreciably lost. [Laughter.] If we had no iron here, then we should encourage its shipment from foreign countries; but not when we can make it as cheaply in our own country. This brings us back to our first proposition, that if any article can be produced at home with nearly the same cost as abroad, the carriage is lost labor.

The treasury of the nation is in such a low condition at present that this subject now demands the attention of Congress, and will demand the immediate consideration of the new Administration. The tariff bill now before Congress may or may not pass at the present session. I confess I do not understand the precise provisions of this bill, and I do not know whether it can be passed by the present Congress or not. It may or may not become the law of the land---but if it does, that will be an end of the matter until a modification can be effected, should it be deemed necessary. If it does not pass (and the latest advices I have are to the effect that it is still pending) the next Congress will have to give it their earliest attention.

According to my political education, I am inclined to believe that the people in the various sections of the country should have their own views carried out through their representatives in Congress, and if the consideration of the Tariff bill should be postponed until the next session of the National Legislature, no subject should engage your representatives more closely than that of a tariff. And if I have any recommendation to make, it will be that every man who is called upon to serve the people in a representative capacity, should study this whole subject thoroughly, as I intend to do myself, looking to all the varied interests of our common country, so that when the time for action arrives adequate protection can be extended to the coal and iron of Pennsylvania, the corn of Illinois, and the ``reapers of Chicago.'' Permit me to express the hope that this important subject may receive such consideration at the hands of your representatives, that the interests of no part of the country may be overlooked, but that all sections may share in common the benefits of a just and equitable tariff.

In addition to what Lincoln actually said at the Pittsburg speech, there is the manuscript he wrote for the speech, which is somewhat different, relevantly including:

I have, by no means, a thoroughly matured judgment upon this subject---especially as to details. Some general ideas are about all. I have long thought that to produce any necessary article at home, which can be made of as good quality, and with as little labor at home as abroad, would better be made at home, at least by the difference of the carrying from abroad. In such case, the carrying is demonstrably a dead loss of labor. For instance, labor being the true standard of value, is it not plain, that if equal labor get a bar of rail-road iron out of a mine in England, and another out of a mine in Pennsylvania, each can be laid down in a track at home, cheaper than they could exchange countries, at least by the cost of carriage. If there be a present cause why one can be both made and carried, cheaper, in money price, than the other can be made without carrying, that cause is an unnatural, and injurious one, and ought, gradually, if not rapidly, to be removed.

Two follow-up articles to the 1914 debunking article were published.

In Lincoln and the Tariff: A Sequel The Quarterly Journal of Economics Vol. 29, No. 2 (Feb., 1915), pp. 426-429 it is realized that the quote was first attributed to Lincoln in a 9 June 1894 issue of the newspaper Harvard Independent. It is concluded that oration about Lincoln by Robert G. Ingersoll containing the quote was confused by Harvard Independent as being an actual Lincoln quote, and example of which is on page 128 of volume 3 of Works of Robert G. Ingersoll.

In The Lincoln Tariff Myth Finally Disposed of The Quarterly Journal of Economics Vol. 35, No. 3 (May, 1921), p. 500 evidence that Robert G. Ingersoll was using the quote starting about 1880 is presented and it is concluded that attribution to Lincoln was accidental.

  • 7
    "Under a portrait of Lincoln this is printed: ..." – in other words, they'd already invented the Image Quote meme in 1912. Dec 18, 2022 at 23:35
  • The bolded passage ending with the carriage is lost labor commits no fallacy and is in no way similar to the fallacy in the "quotes" falsely attributed to Lincoln. Today we would more simply say that the transport costs are lost/wasted. (So I'm not sure what purpose the addition of these paragraphs serves other than further confusion and perhaps a false suggestion that Lincoln ever said something similar.)
    – user62611
    Dec 20, 2022 at 3:27
  • But Lincoln does seem to commit the separate and unrelated fallacy that economists today usually refer to as the Labor Theory of Value (LTV) when he states, "Labor is the true standard of value," and, "labor being the true standard of value". (The LTV was also subscribed to by Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Marx, and many other great economists. It was only cleared up from the 1870s, though as usual some form of it often continues to be circulated in confused form.)
    – user62611
    Dec 20, 2022 at 3:28
  • @user24096 yes, I have the vinyl Red Shadow album "Better Red" with the song "Labor is Value" youtube.com/watch?v=8NSxgbAW1Hw
    – DavePhD
    Dec 20, 2022 at 14:45
  • @user24096 "commits no fallacy" is questionable (broken window); the passage is nonetheless wrong: the cost is not merely the purchase price or the labor to produce the iron, the cost is that which is foregone to get the iron. Relative advantages mean that it is almost certainly "better" (meaning globally and nationally advantageous) to produce the iron one place or the other and ship it.
    – fectin
    Dec 21, 2022 at 2:31

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