That the election of 1888 differed from its predecessors since 1865 was due chiefly to the independence, courage and political insight of President Cleveland. Hitherto campaigns had been contested with as little reference to real issues as conditions rendered possible. Neither party had possessed leaders with sufficient understanding of the needs of the nation to force a genuine settlement of an important issue. That 1888 saw a clear contest made it a memorable year in recent politics.

It will be remembered that the tariff act of 1883 had been satisfactory only to a minority in Congress, because it retained the high level of customs duties that had been established during the Civil War. The congressional election of 1882 had resulted in the choice of a Democratic House of Representatives and had offered another opportunity for downward revision. Early in 1884, therefore, William R. Morrison presented a bill making considerable additions to the free list and providing for a "horizontal" reduction of about twenty per cent. on all other duties as levied under the act of 1883. The measure was defeated by four votes. Opposed to it were substantially all the Republicans and forty-one Democrats, most of them from the industrial states of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Ohio. The Democratic tariff plank of 1884, as has been seen, was practically meaningless, but the election of Cleveland, and the choice of a Democratic House gave another opportunity for revision. Again Morrison attempted a reduction, and again he was defeated by Samuel J. Randall and the other protectionist Democrats.

The entire matter, however, was about to receive a new and important development at the hands of President Cleveland and John G. Carlisle, who was the Speaker of the House during the four years from 1885 to 1889. Carlisle was a Kentuckian, a man of grave bearing, unflagging industry and substantial attainments. His tariff principles were in accord with those of the President, and his position as Speaker enabled him to determine the make-up of the Committee on Ways and Means, which would frame any tariff legislation. Cleveland had expressed his belief in the desirability of tariff reduction in his messages to Congress of 1885 and 1886, basing his recommendations on the same facts that had earlier actuated President Arthur in making similar suggestions. His recommendations, however, had received the same slight consideration that had been accorded those of his Republican predecessor. He therefore determined to challenge the attention of the country and of Congress by means of a novel expedient.

Previous presidential messages had covered a wide variety of subjects - foreign relations, domestic affairs, and recommendations of all kinds. Departing from this custom, the President made up his mind to devote an entire message to tariff reform. His project was startling from the political point of view, for his party was far from being a unit in its attitude toward reduction, a presidential campaign was at hand, and the Independents, who had had a strong influence in bringing about his success in 1884, sent word to him that a reform message would imperil his chances of re-election. This type of argument had little weight with Cleveland, however, and his reply was brief: "Do you not think that the people of the United States are entitled to some instruction on this subject?"

On December 6, 1887, therefore, he sent to Congress his famous message urging the downward revision of the tariff. The immediate occasion of his recommendation, he declared, was the surplus of income over expenditure, which was piling up in the treasury at a rapid rate and which was a constant invitation to reckless appropriations. The portion of the public debt which was payable had already been redeemed, so that whatever surplus was not expended would be stored in the vaults, thus reducing the amount of currency in circulation, and making likely a financial crisis. The simplest remedy for the situation seemed to Cleveland to lie in a reduction of the income, and the most desirable means of reduction seemed to be the downward revision of the tariff, a system of "unnecessary taxation" which he denominated "vicious, inequitable, and illogical." Disclaiming any wish to advocate free trade, he expressed the hope that Congress would turn its attention to the practical problem before it:

    Our progress toward a wise conclusion will not be improved by 
    dwelling upon the theories of protection and free trade. This 
    savors too much of bandying epithets. It is a condition which 
    confronts us, not a theory.