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Noah Feldman

James Madison Would Like a Few Words on Trade Wars

The fourth president tried all kinds of sanctions to open markets, but still ended up in the War of 1812.
"Must we remain passive victims to foreign politics?"

"Must we remain passive victims to foreign politics?"

Source: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

President Donald Trump says trade wars are easy to win, but that hasn’t always been true in U.S. history. To the contrary, for the first 40 years of the republic, the founders struggled desperately to establish international trade agreements that Americans would find acceptable. The need for trade leverage was the first factor motivating James Madison to call for a new Constitution. And trade wars had a way of turning into shooting wars. The War of 1812, the first declared war in U.S. history, was the result of a trade fight that the Americans seemed unable to win with economic sanctions alone.

The key to understanding the founders’ struggles with trade is to realize that in the 18th century, empires worked a lot like multinational free-trade agreements do in the modern world. Different parts of the British Empire could trade freely with each other, but not with the French or Spanish empires.