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7 Contentious Trade Wars in U.S. History

September 21, 2018 in History

By Lesley Kennedy

From the Boston Tea Party to the banana wars of the 1990s, U.S. trade battles have yielded mixed results for Americans.

President Donald Trump’s tariffs on steel and aluminum, Canadian lumber and on Chinese goods are just the latest in America’s long history of trade war tactics. And while some efforts have led to revolutions (Boston Tea Party), others have failed miserably (Smoot-Hawley Act). Here’s a look at seven U.S. trade wars that made an impact—for better or for worse—on our country.

1. The Boston Tea Party

Major players: American colonists, British Parliament

Boston Tea Party (TV-14; 1:51)

Tools of the trade (war): Tea

“Taxation without representation.” That was the rallying cry December 16, 1773, at Griffin’s Wharf in Boston, when colonists waged a political protest over taxes levied by Great Britain, including the Stamp Act of 1765 and the Townshend Acts of 1767 that taxed everything from newspapers and playing cards to paint, glass and, yes, tea. Following the 1770 Boston Massacre, Britain repealed all but the tea tax, leading to a colonial boycott of the British East India Company and tea smuggling. The night of the infamous tea party, organized by the Sons of Liberty (which counted John Hancock, John Adams and Paul Revere among its members), a reported 116 men tossed 342 chests of tea—92,000 pounds of the stuff valued at around $1 million by today’s standards—overboard.

Consequences: The British Parliament and King George III enacted the Coercive Acts, which among other orders, closed Boston Harbor until the tea was paid for, stopped free elections in Massachusetts and required colonists to house British troops on demand. In response, the other colonies sent supplies and were spurred to declare the right of the colonies to govern independently. The Revolutionary War began soon after, on April 19, 1775.

2. The Smoot-Hawley Act of 1930

Major players: United States, Canada, Europe and other nations

A political cartoon of President Herbert Hoover explaining his farm relief program to a farmer.

Tools of the trade (war): Thousands of imported goods

President Herbert Hoover originally set out to deal with a farm crisis during the early years of the Great Depression, proposing tariffs on agricultural imports. But Senators Reed Smoot and Willis C. Hawley offered their own legislation, and added a slew of industrial tariffs. This was despite a petition signed by 1,000 U.S. economists calling, unsuccessfully, for Hoover to veto the plan. The world responded with tariffs on U.S. …read more


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