The Tariff of Abominations

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1762
John Quincy Adams, 6th President of the United States

The 1828 Tariff of Abominations illustrated economic priorities in terms of sectional considerations, resulting in calls for nullification and states’ rights.

In 1828 the Congress passed an import tax measure that came to be called the “Tariff of Abominations.” Contrived by the supporters of Andrew Jackson to embarrass the presidency of John Quincy Adams, the measure, according to John Randolph of Virginia, was designed less to support manufactures, but for “the manufacture of a President of the United States.” Although Jackson’s supporters did not intend for the measure to pass, it was approved by both houses of Congress and signed into law by President Adams on May 19, 1828.

The Tariff Issue and Southern Opposition

Tariffs had existed since Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton convinced the Congress of their utility during the Washington administration. Tariffs were the primary source of government revenue and, after 1816, offered protection to the infant industries of America from lower priced foreign imports. The greatest benefactor of high tariff schedules was New England, although as the young nation grew, other areas benefited as well.

In the 1820s, Southern states on the Atlantic seaboard were experiencing difficult economic times. Cotton, the most lucrative cash crop for the South, was steadily declining in value. This affected Virginia as well as North and South Carolina as more cotton plantations began to emerge in the lower South in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and parts of Georgia. Increased production drove down prices.

Concomitant to the falling price of cotton, farmers in the most depressed areas were migrating westward, exacerbating a decline in population. Cessation of foreign slave imports after 1808 dramatically increased the price of slaves, further aggravating agricultural considerations. High tariff schedules increased the cost of imported goods. Southerners from states adversely affected believed that tariffs only benefited the North.

Tariffs and Sectional Approval or Disapproval

Between 1816 and 1842 Congress enacted six different tariff measures. Only twice were tariff schedules lowered in those six measures. With the exception of the 1832 tariff, which addressed the high rates of the 1828 tariff, congressional delegations from New England approved high tariff rates with overwhelming majorities. New England industries were thriving because of protectionism.

Similarly, high tariff rates were welcomed in other parts of the country, notably where they affected local industries. Sugar plantations in Louisiana competed with foreign sugar from Cuba and the Caribbean. Higher rates on imported sugar ensured approval of some tariffs, notably the 1816 tariff, in the Southwest. This was also true in the production of bourbon whiskey in Kentucky, which competed with Cuban molasses.

The Tariff of Abominations Leads to Nullification

Although the 1828 tariff had roots in the election of 1824 and was designed to influence the election of 1828, it was signed into law by President Adams. This led to outrage in the Southeast, particularly in South Carolina. The “South Carolina Exposition,” written, in part, by Vice-President John C. Calhoun (albeit secretly), advocated nullification.

Nullification first became an issue with Jefferson’s Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions during the John Adams presidency, in opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts. Calhoun’s philosophic treatment took nullification further, advancing an intelligent argument for states’ rights. Nullification as an issue would plague the next administration under Andrew Jackson, who settled the matter with the threat of sending federal troops to South Carolina.

Congress Revises the 1828 Tariff of Abominations

In 1832 Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams (in the Congress as chairman of the Committee on Manufactures) rewrote the tariff, lowering most rates. This diffused Southern protest but the tariff issue would continue to separate the economic priorities of the North and the South throughout the 19th Century.

References:

  1. Alfred H. Kelly and Winfred A. Harbison, The American Constitution: Its Origins and Development, fifth edition (W. W. Norton & Company, 1976)
  2. Frederick Merk, History of the Westward Movement (Alfred A. Knopf, 1978)