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Trade Policy: Using Past Debates to Inform Current Policy Decisions

Debates over trade policy have occurred since the Founding, beginning with even George Washington and Alexander Hamilton arguing for tariffs as a way to protect American “infant industries,” which resulted in the passing of the Tariff of 1789. Since then, debates over protective tariffs and free-trade have surfaced time and again. Most recently, in the 2016 Presidential Campaign, then-candidate Donald Trump spoke out against various trade deals including the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).  Since taking office, President Trump’s administration has placed tariffs on goods coming from a number of different countries.  This has led to tensions with China and several other trading partners, with some even issuing threats of a “trade war.” In this activity, students will gather information from documents from the debate over the Dingley Tariff of 1897 in order to better understand trade debates in the past and develop a better understanding for those who support and oppose tariffs. This lesson was written by Thomas Fulbright, social studies teacher at Hope Street Academy in Topeka, Kansas. Objectives:

  • Students will explore the central ideas argued over during the Dingley Tariff debate.
  • Students will use ideas from past debates over tariffs to advise contemporary policymakers debating the use of tariffs.

Resources: Handout A: Amitrajeet A. Batabyal, What is a tariff? An economist explains,, March 15, 2018, Excerpts Handout B: President William McKinley, Message Regarding Special Session of Congress, March 15, 1897, Excerpts Handout C: Walter Evans (R)Kentucky, Speech to the House of Representatives on H.R.379, March 24, 1897, Excerpts Handout D: J.S. Pughe,  “He has one medicine for all ills,” Puck, 1897 Handout E: John A. McDowell (D)Ohio, Speech to Congress on H.R. 397, 1897, Excerpts Handout F: Patrick Henry (D)Mississippi, Speech to Congress on H.R. 379, 1897, Excerpts Handout G: Louis Dalrymple,  Better than Klondike, Puck, 1897 Handout H: Udo J. Keppler, The keepers at the gate, Puck, 1897 Handout I: Document Analysis Questions Handout J: Digital Scholarship Lab Essay on Dingley Tariff   Warm-up Activity (5 minutes)

  • Use Handout A to discuss as a whole class what tariffs are and their basic purposes.

Warm-up Comprehension and Critical Thinking Questions

  1. What is a tariff, and what are its purposes?

  Activity 1 (5-10 Minutes)

  • Have students read (or listen to) the most recent NPR article on Trade policy found under this link

Comprehension Questions:

  1. Why are the tariffs being used?
  2. Why do some people support the use of the tariff?
  3. Why do some people oppose the use of the tariff?

  Activity 2 (10 minutes)

  • Explain to students they will be studying documents from the past debate over the 1897 Dingley Tariff to give advice to contemporary policymakers trying to decide to whether they should support or oppose the current use of tariffs.
  • Divide students into (7) jigsaw groups, giving each group of students one document from the debate over the Dingley Tariff Debate. (Handouts B, C, D, E, F, G, H,)
  • Using Handout I, have each group complete the questions for the document they were assigned.

  Activity 3 (20 minutes)

  1. Reassemble the whole class and have each group present one argument from their assigned document to the rest of the class, being careful not to express their personal opinion. They might begin by saying “The main argument of this document is…”
  2. After all documents are presented, have students note privately on scratch paper whether they favor or oppose the Dingley Tariff.
  3. Next, read Handout J: Digital Scholarship Lab Essay on Dingley Tariff together.
  4. Students should now reevaluate their first vote from step 2.
  5. They will use all evidence accumulated to defend a position on the contemporary trade policy debate.
  6. Students will vote as a class to either support or oppose the trade policy.

  Extension Activity:

  • Have students write a letter to an elected official using evidence from the debate over the Dingley Tariff.