Lesson Plan: The History of Tariffs in the United States

Defining Tariffs

The Smithsonian Institution's Peter Liebhold discussed the definition of tariffs and the different types of tariffs. He also spoke about the effects of tariffs on the economy and how they are used by politicians.


This lesson looks at how the United States has used tariffs throughout its history to implement trade policy. It looks at the role tariffs have played as a revenue source before the 16th Amendment and how they have protected specific sectors of the economy and geographic regions. Through this lesson, students will view video clips and be able to explain how the use of tariffs has changed throughout the history of the United States.


  • WARM-UP:

    To begin class, have the students answer the following warm-up question:

    • How does trade with other countries impact their lives? How might this be different throughout different times in history?

    Review the students' answers and engage them in a discussion about how foreign trade impacts them and how that might have changed throughout U.S. history.

    Introduce the concept of tariffs to your students by having them view the following video clip and answer the associated questions.

  • Video Clip 1: Defining Tariffs (2:42)

    • What is a tariff? What are the various types of tariffs?

    • In what ways can tariffs be applied to products?

    • According to Mr. Liebhold, how are tariffs like a bowl of spaghetti?

    • How are tariffs used by politicians?

    Review the answers of the introductory assignment with the students and address any misconceptions about how tariffs work. Using either the History of Tariffs Note-taking Handout or the questions associated with each video clip, have the students view each video clip to learn about the development of trade policy and tariffs.

    Handout: History of Tariffs Note-taking Chart (Google Doc)

    Students can also use the handout below to answer questions about each video.

    Handout: History of Tariffs Guiding Questions (Google Doc)

  • Video Clip 2: Early Tariffs in the United States (3:54)

    • Why were tariffs important to the early United States?

    • How did Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists view trade policy and tariffs differently than Thomas Jefferson and the Democrats?

    • In the early republic, why was it important to protect "infant industries" from foreign competition?

    • How did support for tariffs reflect the regional differences in the early republic?
  • Video Clip 3: Tariffs and the Nullification Crisis (2:05)

    • What was the nullification crisis?

    • Describe the tariffs of 1828 and 1832. How did the impact different regions of the country?

    • How did the debate over tariffs contribute to the division between the North and the South?
  • Video Clip 4: Manufacturing and Tariffs in the Late 19th Century (4:21)

    • Describe the trade and tariff policy in the late 19th century.

    • What contributed to the growth of manufacturing in the United States during this time period?

    • According to Mr. Liebhold, how did tariffs help manufacturing projects like the transcontinental railroad?

    • How did the 1883 tariff impact tomatoes?
  • Video Clip 5: The McKinley Tariff Act of 1890 (3:34)

    • What was the reasoning behind the McKinley Tariff Act?

    • What did the McKinley Tariff Act do?

    • What is meant by reciprocity?

    • Why was the McKinley Tariff Act significant?
  • Video Clip 6: Tariffs in the Early 20th Century and the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act (4:57)

    • How did the 16th Amendment affect tariffs?

    • According to Mr. Leobhold, what was the initial purpose of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act? How did this change during the legislative process?

    • What were the negative consequences of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act?

    • How did Franklin Roosevelt's trade policy compare to the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act?
  • Video Clip 7: Free Trade in the Late 20th Century (3:09)

    • How was the North American Free Trade Agreement an example of the United States moving away from tariffs in the late 20th Century?

    • What does Mr. Liebhold mean by the creation of a "different world order" after World War II? How does this relate to the issue of trade and tariffs?

    After reviewing the students' responses and addressing any misconceptions, have the students view the following video clip of President Trump discussing trade policy at the United Nations General Assembly meeting. Students should use the second section of the handout to brainstorm ways to answer the following prompt:

    Video Clip 8: President Trump Speaks at 2019 U.N. General Assembly Meeting (5:51)

    • Using specific historical examples, how does President Trump's concerns about trade and uses of tariffs compare to previous periods in U.S. history. Include information about the purpose of the tariffs/trade policies, the types of tariffs/trade policies used and the impacts of these tariffs/trade policies.

    As either a class discussion or written essay, have the students use the chart to respond to the prompt.


    As an exit slip, have the students use what they have learned to answer the following question in a brief paragraph.

    • How has the use of tariffs changed throughout the history of the United States?

    Current Event Research- Search for a news article that relates to the issue of tariffs. Summarize the articles, explain how the article relates to the history of tariffs and describe what lessons from history can be applied to this situation.

    Timeline- Create a timeline of important events relating to tariffs and trade policy. Students should use the video clips and the explanation from Smithsonian Magazine to provide the following information for this timeline. The timeline should consist of 5-10 specific events relating to tariffs and trade policy.

    • Date and Title for the Event

    • Summary of the Event

    • Importance of this event

    • How did the 16th Amendment change the purpose of tariffs in the United States?

    • How have tariffs been used to protect specific parts of the economy in the United States?

    • Throughout U.S. history, how has the debate over tariffs related to geographic and regional interests?

    • How has the debate over tariffs changed throughout the history of the United States?

    • Are tariffs effective tools for protecting the U.S. economy?

Additional Resources


  • 16th Amendment
  • Free Trade
  • General Agreement On Tariffs And Trade
  • Gilded Age
  • Globalization
  • Great Depression
  • Import
  • Income Tax
  • Manufacturing
  • Mckinley Tariff Act Of 1890
  • Nullification Crisis
  • Protectionist
  • Protective Tariff
  • Reciprocal
  • Retaliation
  • Retaliatory Tariff
  • Revenue
  • Smoot- Hawley Tariff Act
  • Surplus
  • Tariff
  • Tariff Of Abominations
  • Tax
  • World Trade Organization


Economics & Financial LiteracyForeign PolicyU.S. History


High SchoolUniversity