Tariff of Abominations
This past May 19 was the 175th anniversary
of the signing of the Tariff of 1828, better known
as the "Tariff of Abominations," so I thought it was
a good time to review an act that many feel was an
important step leading to the American Civil War.
In light of various moves on today's trade front,
whether it is protectionism in the form of Europeans
denying entry of U.S. genetically- modified food,
or U.S. protectionism on the steel front, a little
history can lead to an insight or two.
the War of 1812, America began to transform itself
from a purely agricultural nation to an industrial
one. The building of the Erie Canal, 1817-1825, had
a lot to do with the revolution in transportation,
for example, and the domestic economy boomed, save
the period surrounding the Panic of 1819.
the presidential election of 1824 proved to be a mess.
Battle of New Orleans war hero Andrew Jackson won
the popular tally, but no one had a majority of the
electoral vote in a four candidate race; Jackson,
John Quincy Adams, William Crawford and Henry Clay.
The election was thrown into the House and it was
there that Adams, the second place finisher, offered
Henry Clay the office of secretary of state in exchange
for his support, with Adams then winning on the first
ballot. The Jackson forces immediately labeled this
the "corrupt bargain."
not only lacked a mandate, he lacked conviction, while
Jackson's people vowed they would make his life miserable,
and succeeded in doing so.
were as prepared to be president as John Quincy Adams.
The son of John Adams, John Quincy was a U.S. Senator
and served as secretary of state under President Monroe.
It was Adams who was most responsible for formulating
the Monroe Doctrine.
described Adams as "a lonely, friendless figure, unable
to express his burning love of country in any way
that would touch the popular imagination." Wrote Adams
himself, "With a knowledge of the actual defects in
my character, I have not the pliability to reform
it." [Source: "The Growth of the American Republic"]
was respected rather than loved. He also wasn't the
hardest worker in history, enjoying a swim in the
Potomac over dealing with Congress, and he was constantly
complaining about the unending chores associated with
his office, like catering to the stream of visitors
who called on the White House in those days.
1828, what would be his last year in office, Adams
was a beaten man. Andrew Jackson's supporters, keen
on taking the election later in the year, sought to
exploit Adams's weakness. The pro-Jackson forces thus
sought to present their candidate to the South as
a free-trader, and to the North as a protectionist.
those days, competition from Great Britain on the
trade front was fierce and Congress was continually
dealing with demands to raise tariffs in order to
protect domestic companies. In August 1827, delegates
to a convention in Harrisburg, PA signed a petition
to force Congress to do something about the grievances
of both farm and manufacturing interests by increasing
tariffs. The northern states were generally in favor,
but southerners weren't because the higher tariffs
meant higher prices for the manufactured products
they didn't produce themselves, while southerners
also felt Great Britain and France would retaliate
on items like cotton, forcing the region into poverty.
result was the Tariff of Abominations in 1828. Historian
Robert Remini described it as a "ghastly, lopsided,
unequal bill, every section of which showed marks
of political preference and favoritism."
feel as though the authors of the bill actually sought
its defeat, in order to embarrass Adams. But the President
refused to even take a stand, leaving it up to Congress,
where both houses ended up signing it. Adams described
the majority as a coalition of factions "united by
a common disappointment into one mass envenomed by
one spirit of bitter and unrelenting persecuting malice"
against him. [Henry Graff]
volatile Virginia Senator John Randolph characterized
the Tariff of Abominations as a measure truly concerned
with no manufacturers except the manufacture of the
next president of the United States. While Randolph's
Virginia colleague, Senator Littleton Tazewell, supposedly
said to Senator Martin Van Buren, a key figure in
passage: "Sir, you have deceived me once; that was
your fault; but if you deceive me again the fault
will be mine." [Robert Remini]
Act is confusing, but the managers had to concede
that their chief purpose was to overthrow Adams in
1828 by bringing Ohio, Kentucky, and Missouri into
the Jackson camp while keeping New York and Pennsylvania
within the fold.
President John C. Calhoun, however, was provoked and
South Carolina's leading statesman wrote his "South
Carolina Exposition and Protest" in response. This
argued that a tariff for protection rather than for
raising revenue was unconstitutional; passage thus
left his state no alternative but to assert its right
of "interposition" against the "despotism of the many."
In other words, Calhoun was raising the principle
Jackson was of course elected in 1828, whipping Adams
178-83 in the electoral vote. While he was a southerner
and favored states' rights, he was also a Union man.
This set the stage for a big fight with Calhoun, who
was also Jackson's vice president, when another oppressive
tariff was passed in 1832. The South Carolina legislature
then adopted the "Ordinance of Nullification," which
declared the tariff void, not "binding upon this State,
its officers or citizens."
sought to preserve the Union by protecting the minority
rights that the agricultural and slaveholding South
claimed. The tariffs of 1828 and 1832 were seen as
symbols of Southern oppression. The principle of nullification,
meanwhile, meant a state could in effect repeal a
federal law, following the process the original thirteen
states had used in ratifying the Constitution. The
states, according to Calhoun, could declare a law
null and void within its limits while remaining in
the Union. All they had to do was hold a special state
convention. Then, either the federal government would
have to abandon the law, or there would have to be
a constitutional amendment removing all doubt as to
with this crisis, President Jackson said, "States'
rights will preserve the union of the states," but
nullification "will dissolve the Union."
1833 a compromise was reached. The Union was saved,
for now, but the marker had been laid.
Quincy Adams" Robert V. Remini
"American Heritage: The Presidents" Michael Beschloss
"Presidents" edited by Henry Graff
"America: A Narrative History" George Brown Tindall
and David E. Shi
"The Growth of the American Republic" Samuel Morison,
Henry Steele Commager, William Leuchtenburg
Street History will return next week.