Calls have been made for the Biden White House to relax some of the tariffs implemented by the Trump administration. The debate is hardly a new phenomenon. 

Tariffs have been a recurring theme in American politics since 1789, when Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton introduced the first tariff. The measure was designed not only to raise badly needed revenue, but also protect American production against foreign imports.  

That tariff was popular in New England but opposed in the South and West, a sectional divide that has been repeated many times since.  After the early 1830s, the Northeast usually supported tariffs, while the South was typically against. 

In 1828, John Quincy Adams backed a high tariff to help domestic industry, much of which was centered in New England.  Adams’ political rival, Andrew Jackson, opposed the measure, and a bitter fight ensued over what became known as the “Tariff of Abominations.”   

Vice-President John Calhoun helped South Carolina declare the tariff as “unconstitutional” and “oppressive,” and the state nullified the tariff, leading to a state’s rights issue and the threat of secession, three decades before the Civil War.

The tariff fight then cooled somewhat, but the Republican Party, founded in 1854, established its protectionist stance early on. Democrats, meanwhile, espoused lower tariffs since the late 1840s. All political parties have supported tariffs at one time or another. 

After the Civil War, the tariff issue returned to the forefront, and Democratic President Grover Cleveland forcefully called for a lower tariff in his annual message to Congress in December 1887. He lost a bid for reelection in 1888 and two years later, Republican House member and future President William McKinley sponsored an act that set the tariff at a sky-high 48%. 

As before, the McKinley Tariff was designed to protect domestic industry, though some agricultural products, like sugar, were also included, at a fee of 2 cents per pound. Consumer prices rose, and the public voted the Republicans out in the midterm elections. 

Democrats sought revenge by reducing the tariff to 41% with the Wilson-Gorman Act in 1894, which failed because duties were added to more goods. McKinley won the White House in 1896, and the Dingley Tariff Act the following year pumped tariffs to a whopping 57%, the highest of the century.

The Roaring Twenties, a period of Republican dominance in both houses of Congress, brought high-tariff rates once more. With the Smoot-Hawley Tariff of 1930, President Herbert Hoover hoped the protectionist measure would help the farm economy against foreign competitors, but the act failed miserably. A global tariff war broke out, most trade was damaged, and the European economy was decimated.

Despite the heated debate over the years, many economists and historians believe the economic effects of tariffs have been negligible, at best. Similarly, many analysts think the importance of tariffs has declined from past eras, mainly because they are no longer a key source of revenue.

Tom Emery is a freelance writer and historical researcher from Carlinville, Illinois. He may be reached at 217-710-8392 or


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