Today in history, President John Quincy Adams signed the Tariff of 1828 into law.
As a radical protectionist measure, the law became known in the South as the “Tariff of Abominations,” and widened the economic schism between the desires of northern industrialists and southern agrarians.
In a seminal account of the subject, Historian Frank William Taussig opined that the law resulted from an elaborate scheme by tariff opponents that hoped to include goods highly imported in the North. By forcing the hand New England states to vote against the measure, he wrote, the free-trade creators of the bill could declare victory when northers voted against the bill or Adams vetoed it. The strategy to defeat the tariff was designed by Martin Van Buren, architect of the Democratic Party and campaigner for Andrew Jackson.
The draftsmen of the bill, then, stood aghast as the bill was accepted by the industrial North, and signed by Adams in the twilight of his presidency. The buying patterns of southern agrarians, who previously benefitted from trade for goods with European powers, would now be coerced to purchase more costly and often inferior products from the North instead. Even though Jackson maintained a moderate approach to protective tariffs during his presidential campaign, it became clear that he intended to vigorously enforce the tariff when he ascended to the presidency in 1829.
The Constitution allowed tariffs to be passed, but they were intended to raise revenue rather than to protect domestic industry and stifle foreign trade. Since the 1828 Tariff had a protectionist function, South Carolina viewed the plan as impermissible and excessively harmful. However, this was not the first political stir caused by tariff policy. Widespread concern over protective tariffs emerged as early as the George Washington administration, when the government passed the federal carriage tax. The carriage tax made only two carriages in the state of Connecticut subject to the tax, although a huge number of southern carriages were affected. This caused an outpouring of unrest from the southern states. John Taylor likened such taxes to despotism, asserting that they reduced Virginians to slavery by depriving them of their own property.
John C. Calhoun saw the 1828 “Tariff of Abominations,” as the law would be called, as unmistakable federal overreach. He thought the new federal tariff would penalize southern production and work to the disproportionate benefit of northern industry. In the public, lengthy and persuasive redresses of grievances were hurled at the general government, but none produced a cure to the problem from the perspective of southerners. Ironically, Calhoun was Andrew Jackson’s vice president, but resigned in 1832, selected by his state shortly thereafter to the Senate specifically so he could work to counteract the tax.
Calhoun articulated his protest against the federal tariff in an influential writing known as the South Carolina Exposition and Protest. He affirmed the same precepts Jefferson and Madison had 30 years earlier, writing that “the General Government is one of specific powers, and it can rightfully exercise only the powers expressly granted…all others being reserved expressly to the States, or to the people.”
Calhoun lamented that the abnegation “consists in using a power granted for one object to advance another, and that by the sacrifice of the original object. It is, in a word, a violation by perversion, the most dangerous of all because the most insidious and difficult to resist.” He described the tariff as “unconstitutional, unequal, oppressive, and calculated to corrupt the public morals, and to destroy the liberty of the country.” Condemning its disproportionately negative effect on the South, Calhoun opined that the law had made the region “serfs of the system.”
The famous South Carolinian contended the general government was “one of specific powers, and it can only rightfully exercise only the powers expressly granted.” Admitting that the Constitution did allow for the passage of tariffs, Calhoun reasoned that this could only be done for the purpose of generating revenue for the general government. Revenue tariffs, he wrote, were by their nature “essentially different from that of imposing protective or prohibitory duties.” This power, he claimed, had been “abused by being converted into an instrument for rearing up the industry of one section of the country on the ruins of another.”
Revenue and protective tariffs, Calhoun wrote, were “incompatible” – the latter being a “violation of the spirit” of the Constitution. The exposition articulated that the radical tariff violated the United States Constitution’s revenue clause in Article I, Section 8, because the high rates deter importation at the expense of revenue collection – thereby making them constitutionally illegitimate. Calhoun argued that fundamentally protective tariffs, such as the inflammatory 1828 model, had been a “perversion” of the document. In his eyes, this enlargement of the federal government’s power was an “insidious” scheme.
Rather than suffer the tariff’s impact and acquiesce to a condition of inaction, Calhoun believed his state should fiercely admonish the law. In this, he felt South Carolina was wholly justified. “It would be impossible to deny to the States the right of deciding the infractions of their powers, and the proper remedy to be applied for their correction,” he wrote. Without such a check, Calhoun wrote that the general government “would exercise unlimited and unrestrained power” over the states.