History, History Column

Tariffs – Then & Now

by ©2018 Sarah Becker

Tariffs – Then & Now

“On 6 July, the U.S. imposed 25% tariffs on $34bn in Chinese goods, prompting Beijing to hit back with levies on the same amount of U.S. exports to China,” London’s The Guardian reported.  “In response, the White House released a wide-ranging list of Chinese goods, from tobacco to pet food, worth $200bn it would target with a 10% tariffs.”  Beijing said it would “fight back as usual” then filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization.  Still Trump’s trade war continues.

A tariff is a tax imposed on imports.  In 1827 one hundred delegates met in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to promote protectionist policies; to “shelter” the American wool industry, as well as producers of such products as hemp, flax, hammered bar iron and steel.    

On May 19, 1828, President John Quincy Adams (MA-DR) signed the later known Tariff of Abominations into law.  He did so over the objections of congressional Jackson-ians; his Vice President, former U.S. Representative and Secretary of War John C. Calhoun (SC-DR, Nullifier).  Father of the Constitution and former President James Madison (VA-DR) spoke “on the constitutionality of the power of Congress to impose a tariff for the encouragement of manufactures.”  The Constitution was approved “in Convention by unanimous consent of the States present” on September 17, 1787.

“The Constitution vests in Congress, expressly, ‘the power to lay & collect taxes, duties imposts & excises’; and ‘the power to regulate trade,’” Madison wrote Joseph C. Cabell on September 18, 1828.  “The present question is…a simple question under the Constitution of the U.S. whether ‘the power to regulate trade with foreign nations’ as a distinct & substantive item in the enumerated powers embraces the object of encouraging by duties, restrictions and prohibitions the manufactures & products of the Country?  And the affirmative must be inferred from the following considerations [selections]:

  1. 1. The meaning of the Phrase ‘to regulate trade’ must be sought in the general use of it, in

other words in the objects to which the power was generally understood to be applicable, when the Phrase was inserted in the Constitution.

  1. 3. The power has been particularly the case with Great Britain, whose commercial vocabulary

is the parent of ours.  A primary of her commercial regulations is well known to have been the protection and encouragement of manufactures.

  1. 4. Such was understood to be a proper use of the power by the States most prepared for

manufacturing industry, whilst retaining the power over their foreign trade.  It was the aim of Virginia herself….

  1. 5. Such a use of the power by Congress accords with the intention and expectation of the

States in transferring the power over trade from themselves to the Govt. of the U.S.

By Mr. Dawes an advocate for the Constitution, it was observed: ‘our manufactures are another great subject which has received no encouragement by national Duties on foreign manufactures…‘If we wish to encourage our own manufactures, to preserve our own commerce, to raise the value of our own lands, we must give Congress the powers in question.’

7.    If revenue be the sole object of a legitimate impost, and the encouragement of domestic articles be not

within the power of regulating trade it will follow that no monopolizing or unequal regulations of foreign Nations could be counteracted….


8.    That the encouragement of Manufactures, was an object of the power, to regulate trade, is proved by the use made of the power for that object, in the first session of the first Congress under the Constitution…[M]embers from Virginia…as well of the antifederal as the federal party…did not hesitate to propose duties…By one a duty was proposed on mineral Coal in favor of the Virginia Coal-Pits; by another a duty on Hemp was proposed to encourage the growth of that article; and by a third a prohibition even of foreign Beef was suggested as a measure of sound policy.  [See Lloyd’s Debates]

[T]he State of Virginia made various trials of what could be done by her individual laws.  She ventured on duties & imposts as a source of Revenue; Resolutions were passed at one time to encourage & protect her own navigation & Ship-building; and in consequence of complaints & petitions from Norfolk, Alexandria & other places against the monopolizing navigation laws of Great Britain….  [Journal of House of Delegates, 1785)

The effect of her separate attempts to raise revenues by duties on imports, soon appeared in Representations from her Merchants that the commerce of the State was banished by them into other channels, especially of Maryland where imports were less burdened than in Virginia.  [Do. for 1786]

These projects were superseded for the moment by that of the Convention of Annapolis in 1786, and forever by the Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 and the Constitution which was the fruit of it….,”  Madison concluded.

Question: did the United States not impose tariffs on “China’s Economic Aggression” by Presidential Memorandum a White House Memo issued March 22, 2018?  Did 107 Republican members of Congress not previously write the President “imploring him not to impose tariffs?”   

The Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1829-30 was the result of a half-century of conflict between eastern and western Virginia over matters of representation and suffrage, internal improvements and government abuse.  Said attendee James Madison on December 2, 1829:   

“The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse.  In monarchies, the interests and happiness of all may be sacrificed to the caprice and passions of a despot.  In aristocracies, the rights and welfare of the many may be sacrificed to the pride and cupidity of the few.  In republics, the great danger is, that the majority may not sufficiently respect the rights of the minority.  Some gentlemen, consulting the purity and generosity of their own minds, without adverting to the lessons of experience, would find a security against that danger, in our social feelings; in a respect for character….”

“It is your character, and your character alone, that will make your life happy or unhappy,” Senator John McCain (R-AZ) wrote with Alexandrian Mark Salter in Character is Destiny.  “That is all that really passes for destiny.  And you choose it.”  Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) “has said he will propose a bill to nullify the tariffs.”

“In framing a Constitution, great difficulties are necessarily to be overcome; and nothing can ever overcome them but a spirit of compromise,” Madison concluded.  “Other nations are surprised at nothing so much as our having been able to form Constitutions in the manner which has been exemplified in this country.  Even the Union of so many States, is, in the eyes of the world, a wonder; the harmonious establishment of a common Government over them all, a miracle.”

Congress, in fact, has surrendered much of its ‘power to lay & collect taxes, duties imposts & excises;’ its ‘power to regulate trade.’  With passage of the 1917 Trading with the Enemy Act; the 1962 Trade Expansion Act, Section 232; the 1974 Trade Act and the 1977 International Emergency Economic Powers Act.

Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) has joined Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) in introducing a “bill that would require congressional approval when the president enacts tariffs under the auspices of national security.”  [Section 232]  The risks associated with presidential power, the Executive Magistrate’s ability to impose tariffs was deliberated in 1787.

In Convention in Philadelphia, July 20, 1787: “Mr. Madison thought it indispensable that some provision should be made for defending the Community against the incapacity, negligence or perfidy of the chief Magistrate.  The limitation of the period of his service was not a sufficient security.  He might lose his capacity after his appointment.  He might pervert his administration into a scheme of peculation or oppression.  He might betray his trust to foreign powers.  The case of the Executive Magistracy was very distinguishable from that of the Legislature…In the case of the Executive Magistracy which was to be administered by a single man, loss of capacity or corruption…might be fatal to the Republic.”

On July 24, 2018 the Trump administration announced a $12bn tariff-related aid package.  To subsidize American farmers trade losses especially China.

Sarah Becker started writing for The Economist while a graduate student in England. Similar publications followed. She joined the Crier in 1996 while serving on the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association Board. Her interest in antiquities began as a World Bank hire, with Indonesia’s need to generate hard currency. Balinese history, i.e. tourism provided the means. The New York Times describes Becker’s book, Off Your Duffs & Up the Assets, as “a blueprint for thousands of nonprofit managers.” A former museum director, SLAM’s saving grace Sarah received Alexandria’s Salute to Women Award in 2007.

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