President Trump defended his use of tariffs to force other countries to renegotiate “unfair” trade deals by claiming that “our country was built on tariffs.” He’s right.
America was a staunchly protectionist country for most of its history before World War II. One of the very first bills new President George Washington signed, for instance, was the Tariff Act of 1789. He inked the bill on July 4 of that year.
The tariff of 1789 was designed to raise money for the new federal government, slash Revolutionary War debt and protect early-stage American industries from foreign competition.
Then, as now, some industries sought protection in Congress from a flood of imports. Most goods entering the U.S. were subjected to a 5% tariff, though in a few cases the rates ranged as high as 50%.
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