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The Tariff of Abominations
Brian Trumbore

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.

Following 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.

But 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."

Adams not only lacked a mandate, he lacked conviction, while Jackson's people vowed they would make his life miserable, and succeeded in doing so.

Few 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.

Historians 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"]

Adams 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.

By 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.

In 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.

The 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."

Many 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]

The 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]

The 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.

Vice 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 of "nullification."

Andrew 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."

Calhoun 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 its validity.

Faced with this crisis, President Jackson said, "States' rights will preserve the union of the states," but nullification "will dissolve the Union."

In 1833 a compromise was reached. The Union was saved, for now, but the marker had been laid.


"John 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

Wall Street History will return next week.

Brian Trumbore


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