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Smoot-Hawley Tariff

Anthony O’Brien, Lehigh University

The Smoot-Hawley Tariff of 1930 was the subject of enormous controversy at the time of its passage and remains one of the most notorious pieces of legislation in the history of the United States. In the popular press and in political discussions the usual assumption is that the Smoot-Hawley Tariff was a policy disaster that significantly worsened the Great Depression. During the controversy over passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in the 1990s, Vice President Al Gore and billionaire former presidential candidate Ross Perot met in a debate on the Larry King Live program. To help make his point that Perot’s opposition to NAFTA was wrong-headed, Gore gave Perot a framed portrait of Sen. Smoot and Rep. Hawley. Gore assumed the audience would consider Smoot and Hawley to have been exemplars of a foolish protectionism. Although the popular consensus on Smoot-Hawley is clear, the verdict among scholars is more mixed, particularly with respect to the question of whether the tariff significantly worsened the Great Depression.

Background to Passage of the Tariff

The Smoot-Hawley Tariff grew out of the campaign promises of Herbert Hoover during the 1928 presidential election. Hoover, the Republican candidate, had pledged to help farmers by raising tariffs on imports of farm products. Although the 1920s were generally a period of prosperity in the United States, this was not true of agriculture; average farm incomes actually declined between 1920 and 1929. During the campaign Hoover had focused on plans to raise tariffs on farm products, but the tariff plank in the 1928 Republican Party platform had actually referred to the potential of more far-reaching increases:

[W]e realize that there are certain industries which cannot now successfully compete with foreign producers because of lower foreign wages and a lower cost of living abroad, and we pledge the next Republican Congress to an examination and where necessary a revision of these schedules to the end that American labor in the industries may again command the home market, may maintain its standard of living, and may count upon steady employment in its accustomed field.

In a longer perspective, the Republican Party had been in favor of a protective tariff since its founding in the 1850s. The party drew significant support from manufacturing interests in the Midwest and Northeast that believed they benefited from high tariff barriers against foreign imports. Although the free trade arguments dear to most economists were espoused by few American politicians during the 1920s, the Democratic Party was generally critical of high tariffs. In the 1920s the Democratic members of Congress tended to represent southern agricultural interests — which saw high tariffs as curtailing foreign markets for their exports, particularly cotton — or unskilled urban workers — who saw the tariff as driving up the cost of living.

The Republicans did well in the 1928 election, picking up 30 seats in the House — giving them a 267 to 167 majority — and seven seats in the Senate — giving them a 56 to 39 majority. Hoover easily defeated the Democratic presidential candidate, New York Governor Al Smith, capturing 58 percent of the popular vote and 444 of 531 votes in the Electoral College. Hoover took office on March 4, 1929 and immediately called a special session of Congress to convene on April 15 for the purpose of raising duties on agricultural products. Once the session began it became clear, however, that the Republican Congressional leadership had in mind much more sweeping tariff increases.

The House concluded its work relatively quickly and passed a bill on May 28 by a vote of 264 to 147. The bill faced a considerably more difficult time in the Senate. A block of Progressive Republicans, representing midwestern and western states, held the balance of power in the Senate. Some of these Senators had supported the third-party candidacy of Wisconsin Senator Robert LaFollette during the 1924 presidential election and they were much less protectionist than the Republican Party as a whole. It proved impossible to put together a majority in the Senate to pass the bill and the special session ended in November 1929 without a bill being passed.

By the time Congress reconvened the following spring the Great Depression was well underway. Economists date the onset of the Great Depression to the cyclical peak of August 1929, although the stock market crash of October 1929 is the more traditional beginning. By the spring of 1930 it was already clear that the downturn would be severe. The impact of the Depression helped to secure the final few votes necessary to put together a slim majority in the Senate in favor of passage of the bill. Final passage in the Senate took place on June 13, 1930 by a vote of 44 to 42. Final passage took place in the House the following day by a vote of 245 to 177. The vote was largely on party lines. Republicans in the House voted 230 to 27 in favor of final passage. Ten of the 27 Republicans voting no were Progressives from Wisconsin and Minnesota. Democrats voted 150 to 15 against final passage. Ten of the 15 Democrats voting for final passage were from Louisiana or Florida and represented citrus or sugar interests that received significant new protection under the bill.

President Hoover had expressed reservations about the wide-ranging nature of the bill and had privately expressed fears that the bill might provoke retaliation from America’s trading partners. He received a petition signed by more than 1,000 economists, urging him to veto the bill. Ultimately, he signed the Smoot-Hawley bill into law on June 17, 1930.

Tariff Levels under Smoot-Hawley

Calculating the extent to which Smoot-Hawley raised tariffs is not straightforward. The usual summary measure of tariff protection is the ratio of total tariff duties collected to the value of imports. This measure is misleading when applied to the early 1930s. Most of the tariffs in the Smoot-Hawley bill were specific — such as $1.125 per ton of pig iron — rather than ad valorem — or a percentage of the value of the product. During the early 1930s the prices of many products declined, causing the specific tariff to become an increasing percentage of the value of the product. The chart below shows the ratio of import duties collected to the value of dutiable imports. The increase shown for the early 1930s was partly due to declining prices and, therefore, exaggerates the effects of the Smoot-Hawley rate increases.

Source: U.S. Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970, Washington, D.C.: USGPO, 1975, Series 212.

A more accurate measure of the increase in tariff rates attributable to Smoot-Hawley can be found in a study carried out by the U.S. Tariff Commission. This study calculated the ad valorem rates that would have prevailed on actual U.S. imports in 1928, if the Smoot-Hawley rates been in effect then. These rates were compared with the rates prevailing under the Tariff Act of 1922, known as the Fordney-McCumber Tariff. The results are reproduced in Table 1 for the broad product categories used in tariff schedules and for total dutiable imports.

Table 1
Tariffs Rates under Fordney-McCumber vs. Smoot-Hawley

Equivalent ad valorem rates
Product Fordney-McCumber Smoot-Hawley
Chemicals 29.72% 36.09%
Earthenware, and Glass 48.71 53.73
Metals 33.95 35.08
Wood 24.78 11.73
Sugar 67.85 77.21
Tobacco 63.09 64.78
Agricultural Products 22.71 35.07
Spirits and Wines 38.83 47.44
Cotton Manufactures 40.27 46.42
Flax, Hemp, and Jute 18.16 19.14
Wool and Manufactures 49.54 59.83
Silk Manufactures 56.56 59.13
Rayon Manufactures 52.33 53.62
Paper and Books 24.74 26.06
Sundries 36.97 28.45
Total 38.48 41.14

Source: U.S. Tariff Commission, The Tariff Review, July 1930, Table II, p. 196.

By this measure, Smoot-Hawley raised average tariff rates by about 2 ½ percentage points from the already high rates prevailing under the Fordney-McCumber Tariff of 1922.

The Basic Macroeconomics of the Tariff

Economists are almost uniformly critical of tariffs. One of the bedrock principles of economics is that voluntary trade makes everyone involved better off. For the U.S. government to interfere with trade between Canadian lumber producers and U.S. lumber importers — as it did under Smoot-Hawley by raising the tariff on lumber imports — makes both parties to the trade worse off. In a larger sense, it also hurts the efficiency of the U.S. economy by making it rely on higher priced U.S. lumber rather than less expensive Canadian lumber.

But what is the effect of a tariff on the overall level of employment and production in an economy? The usual answer is that a tariff will leave the overall level of employment and production in an economy largely unaffected. Although the popular view is very different, most economists do not believe that tariffs either create jobs or destroy jobs in aggregate. Economists believe that the overall level of jobs and production in the economy is determined by such things as the capital stock, the population, the state of technology, and so on. These factors are not generally affected by tariffs. So, for instance, a tariff on imports of lumber might drive up housing prices and cause a reduction in the number of houses built. But economists believe that the unemployment in the housing industry will not be long-lived. Economists are somewhat divided on why this is true. Some believe that the economy automatically adjusts rapidly to reallocate labor and machinery that are displaced from one use — such as making houses — into other uses. Other economists believe that this adjustment does not take place automatically, but can be brought about through active monetary or fiscal policy. In either view, the economy is seen as ordinarily being at its so-called full-employment or potential level and deviating from that level only for brief periods of time. Tariffs have the ability to change the mix of production and the mix of jobs available in an economy, but not to change the overall level of production or the overall level of jobs. The macroeconomic impact of tariffs is therefore very limited.

In the case of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff, however, the U.S. economy was in depression in 1930. No active monetary or fiscal policies were carried out and the economy was not making much progress back to full employment. In fact, the cyclical trough was not reached until March 1933 and the economy did not return to full employment until 1941. Under these circumstances is it possible for Smoot-Hawley to have had a significant impact on the level of employment and production and would that impact have been positive or negative?

A simple view of the determination of equilibrium Gross Domestic Product (Y) holds that it is equal to the sum of aggregate expenditures. Aggregate expenditures are divided into four categories: spending by households on consumption goods (C), spending by households and firms on investment goods — such as houses, and machinery and equipment (I), spending by the government on goods and services (G), and net exports, which are the difference between spending on exports by foreign households and firms (EX) and spending on imports by domestic households and firms (IM). So, in the basic algebra of the principles of economics course, at equilibrium, Y = C + I + G + (EX – IM).

The usual story of the Great Depression is that some combination of falling consumption spending and falling investment spending had resulted in the equilibrium level of GDP being far below its full employment level. By raising tariffs on imports, Smoot-Hawley would have reduced the level of imports, but would not have had any direct effect on exports. This simple analysis seems to lead to a surprising conclusion: by reducing imports, Smoot-Hawley would have raised the level of aggregate expenditures in the economy (by increasing net exports or (EX – IM)) and, therefore, increased the level of GDP relative to what it would otherwise have been.

A potential flaw in this argument is that it assumes that Smoot-Hawley did not have a negative impact on U.S. exports. In fact, it may have had a negative impact on exports if foreign governments were led to retaliate against the passage of Smoot-Hawley by raising tariffs on imports of U.S. goods. If net exports fell as a result of Smoot-Hawley, then the tariff would have had a negative macroeconomic impact; it would have made the Depression worse. In 1934 Joseph Jones wrote a very influential book in which he argued that widespread retaliation against Smoot-Hawley had, in fact, taken place. Jones’s book helped to establish the view among the public and among scholars that the passage of Smoot-Hawley had been a policy blunder that had worsened the Great Depression.

Did Retaliation Take Place?

This is a simplified analysis and there are other ways in which Smoot-Hawley could have had a macroeconomic impact, such as by increasing the price level in the U.S. relative to foreign price levels. But in recent years there has been significant scholarly interest in the question of whether Smoot-Hawley did provoke significant retaliation and, therefore, made the Depression worse. Clearly it is possible to overstate the extent of retaliation and Jones almost certainly did. For instance, the important decision by Britain to abandon a century-long commitment to free trade and raise tariffs in 1931 was not affected to any significant extent by Smoot-Hawley.

On the other hand, the case for retaliation by Canada is fairly clear. Then, as now, Canada was easily the largest trading partner of the United States. In 1929, 18 percent of U.S. merchandise exports went to Canada and 11 percent of U.S. merchandise imports came from Canada. At the time of the passage of Smoot-Hawley the Canadian Prime Minister was William Lyon Mackenzie King of the Liberal Party. King had been in office for most of the period since 1921 and had several times reduced Canadian tariffs. He held the position that tariffs should be used to raise revenue, but should not be used for protection. In early 1929 he was contemplating pushing for further tariff reductions, but this option was foreclosed by Hoover’s call for a special session of Congress to consider tariff increases.

As Smoot-Hawley neared passage King came under intense pressure from the Canadian Conservative Party and its leader, Richard Bedford Bennett, to retaliate. In May 1930 Canada imposed so-called countervailing duties on 16 products imported from the United States. The duties on these products — which represented about 30 percent of the value of all U.S. merchandise exports to Canada — were raised to the levels charged by the United States. In a speech, King made clear the retaliatory nature of these increases:

[T]he countervailing duties ? [are] designed to give a practical illustration to the United States of the desire of Canada to trade at all times on fair and equal terms?. For the present we raise the duties on these selected commodities to the level applied against Canadian exports of the same commodities by other countries, but at the same time we tell our neighbour ? we are ready in the future ? to consider trade on a reciprocal basis?.

In the election campaign the following July, Smoot-Hawley was a key issue. Bennett, the Conservative candidate, was strongly in favor in retaliation. In one campaign speech he declared:

How many thousands of American workmen are living on Canadian money today? They’ve got the jobs and we’ve got the soup kitchens?. I will not beg of any country to buy our goods. I will make [tariffs] fight for you. I will use them to blast a way into markets that have been closed.

Bennett handily won the election and pushed through the Canadian Parliament further tariff increases.

What Was the Impact of the Tariff on the Great Depression?

If there was retaliation for Smoot-Hawley, was this enough to have made the tariff a significant contributor to the severity of the Great Depression? Most economists are skeptical because foreign trade made up a small part of the U.S. economy in 1929 and the magnitude of the decline in GDP between 1929 and 1933 was so large. Table 2 gives values for nominal GDP, for real GDP (in 1929 dollars), for nominal and real net exports, and for nominal and real exports. In real terms, net exports did decline by about $.7 billion between 1929 and 1933, but this amounts to less than one percent of 1929 real GDP and is dwarfed by the total decline in real GDP between 1929 and 1933.

Table 2
GDP and Exports, 1929-1933

Year Nominal GDP Real GDP Nominal Net Exports Real Net Exports Nominal Exports Real Exports
1929 $103.1 $103.1 $0.4 $0.3 $5.9 $5.9
1930 $90.4 $93.3 $0.3 $0.0 $4.4 $4.9
1931 $75.8 $86.1 $0.0 -$0.4 $2.9 $4.1
1932 $58.0 $74.7 $0.0 -$0.3 $2.0 $3.3
1933 $55.6 $73.2 $0.1 -$0.4 $2.0 $3.3

Source: U.S. Department of Commerce, National Income and Product Accounts of the United States, Vol. I, 1929-1958, Washington, D.C.: USGPO, 1993.

If we focus on the decline in exports, we can construct an upper bound for the negative impact of Smoot-Hawley. Between 1929 and 1931, real exports declined by an amount equal to about 1.7% of 1929 real GDP. Declines in aggregate expenditures are usually thought to have a multiplied effect on equilibrium GDP. The best estimates are that the multiplier is roughly two. In that case, real GDP would have declined by about 3.4% between 1929 and 1931 as a result of the decline in real exports. Real GDP actually declined by about 16.5% between 1929 and 1931, so the decline in real exports can account for about 21% of the total decline in real GDP. The decline in real exports, then, may well have played an important, but not crucial, role in the decline in GDP during the first two years of the Depression. Bear in mind, though, that not all — perhaps not even most — of the decline in exports can be attributed to retaliation for Smoot-Hawley. Even if Smoot-Hawley had not been passed, U.S. exports would have fallen as incomes declined in Canada, the United Kingdom, and in other U.S. trading partners and as tariff rates in some of these countries increased for reasons unconnected to Smoot-Hawley.

Hawley-Smoot or Smoot-Hawley: A Note on Usage

Congressional legislation is often referred to by the names of the member of the House of Representatives and the member of the Senate who have introduced the bill. Tariff legislation always originates in the House of Representatives and according to convention the name of its House sponsor, in this case Representative Willis Hawley of Oregon, would precede the name of its Senate sponsor, Senator Reed Smoot of Utah — hence, Hawley-Smoot. In this instance, though, Senator Smoot was far better known than Representative Hawley and so the legislation is usually referred to as the Smoot-Hawley Tariff. The more formal name of the legislation was the U.S. Tariff Act of 1930.)

Further Reading

The Republican Party platform for 1928 is reprinted as: “Republican Platform [of 1928]” in Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Fred L. Israel, and William P. Hansen, editors, History of American Presidential Elections, 1789-1968, New York: Chelsea House, 1971, Vol. 3. Herbert Hoover’s views on the tariff can be found in Herbert Hoover, The Future of Our Foreign Trade, Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1926 and Herbert Hoover, The Memoirs of Herbert Hoover: The Cabinet and the Presidency, 1920-1933, New York: Macmillan, 1952, Chapter 41. Trade statistics for this period can be found in U.S. Department of Commerce, Economic Analysis of Foreign Trade of the United States in Relation to the Tariff. Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1933 and in the annual supplements to the Survey of Current Business.

A classic account of the political process that resulted in the Smoot-Hawley Tariff is given in E. E. Schattschneider, Politics, Pressures and the Tariff, New York: Prentice-Hall, 1935. The best case for the view that there was extensive foreign retaliation against Smoot-Hawley is given in Joseph Jones, Tariff Retaliation: Repercussions of the Hawley-Smoot Bill, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1934. The Jones book should be used with care; his argument is generally considered to be overstated. The view that party politics was of supreme importance in passage of the tariff is well argued in Robert Pastor, Congress and the Politics of United States Foreign Economic Policy, 1929-1976, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.

A discussion of the potential macroeconomic impact of Smoot-Hawley appears in Rudiger Dornbusch and Stanley Fischer, “The Open Economy: Implications for Monetary and Fiscal Policy.” In The American Business Cycle: Continuity and Change, edited by Robert J. Gordon, NBER Studies in Business Cycles, Volume 25, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986, pp. 466-70. See, also, the article by Barry Eichengreen listed below. An argument that Smoot-Hawley is unlikely to have had a significant macroeconomic effect is given in Peter Temin, Lessons from the Great Depression, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989, p. 46. For an argument emphasizing the importance of Smoot-Hawley in explaining the Great Depression, see Alan Meltzer, “Monetary and Other Explanations of the Start of the Great Depression,” Journal of Monetary Economics, 2 (1976): 455-71.

Recent journal articles that deal with the issues discussed in this entry are:

Callahan, Colleen, Judith A. McDonald and Anthony Patrick O’Brien. “Who Voted for Smoot-Hawley?” Journal of Economic History 54, no. 3 (1994): 683-90.

Crucini, Mario J. and James Kahn. “Tariffs and Aggregate Economic Activity: Lessons from the Great Depression.” Journal of Monetary Economics 38, no. 3 (1996): 427-67.

Eichengreen, Barry. “The Political Economy of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff.” Research in Economic History 12 (1989): 1-43.

Irwin, Douglas. “The Smoot-Hawley Tariff: A Quantitative Assessment.” Review of Economics and Statistics 80, no. 2 (1998): 326-334.

Irwin Douglas and Randall S. Kroszner. “Log-Rolling and Economic Interests in the Passage of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff.” Carnegie-Rochester Series on Public Policy 45 (1996): 173-200.

McDonald Judith, Anthony Patrick O’Brien, and Colleen Callahan. “Trade Wars: Canada’s Reaction to the Smoot-Hawley Tariff.” Journal of Economic History 57, no. 4 (1997): 802-26.

Citation: O’Brien, Anthony. “Smoot-Hawley Tariff”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. August 14, 2001. URL