In his address to a joint session of Congress this week, President Trump quoted President Lincoln’s views on international trade: “The first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln, warned that the ‘abandonment of the protective policy by the American government [will] produce want and ruin among our people.’ Lincoln was right.”
Unfortunately, Lincoln was wrong on trade. He was a great president, a strong supporter of preserving the Union, and a wonderful wordsmith. But he never had a chance to absorb the concepts undergirding free trade that had been developed just a few decades earlier in the United Kingdom by Adam Smith and David Ricardo.

The economy of the United States in Lincoln’s time was very different than it is today. The most significant factor driving robust economic growth was not international trade, but rather free trade within the United States. The country was in an expansionary mode. New states were joining the country, which meant new resources were being added to the national economy.
The Constitution helpfully prevented states from imposing tariffs against products coming from other states. New York, for instance, was not allowed to restrict the importation of wheat from Ohio. Products that could be produced efficiently in one part of the country could be sold anywhere else in the country, as long as transportation costs were low enough. With so many opportunities to expand trade domestically, trading with foreign countries simply wasn’t as important.