Why Was the Tariff of Abominations Important?

One of the most divisive US economic policies of the 19th century was the Tariff of 1828. The bill was nicknamed the “Tariff of Abominations” and was an important policy contributing to the 1832 Nullification Crisis.

The tariff was similar to the protectionist Tariff of 1816 in that it was designed with the intent to protect the nascent American manufacturing industry. 

While the original protectionist tariff had wide support across the nation, tariffs in the 1820s were extremely divisive. Southern states were extremely opposed to tariffs given their lack of manufacturing while western and mid-Atlantic states generally supported tariffs as a part of Henry Clay’s American System.

When a new tariff was proposed in 1828 southern legislators attempted a new strategy to defeat the proposal. Instead of aiming to defeat a proposed tariff increase, southerners created a bill that also hurt northern states, predicting that northerners would not approve a bill that hurt themselves as well.

Instead, northerners shocked the south by approving the tariff despite the unfavorable provisions. President John Quincy Adams signed the bill into law as one of his last actions as president in 1828.

Southerners were outraged the bill actually passed and nicknamed the tariff the “Tariff of Abominations.” The tariff would lead the state of South Carolina to adopt the nullification doctrine and eventually lead to the 1832 Nullification Crisis that nearly divided the Union.

Tariff Policy in the United States

Tariffs were used in the early United States as the primary method to generate revenue for the federal government. Duties were placed upon imported goods from foreign nations and collected by the government to pay for federal expenses and the national debt.

However tariffs also served as a method to protect domestic American businesses. These tariffs often led to increased prices of foreign goods making it easier for American businesses to compete in US markets.

The first tariff designed specifically with a protectionist intent was the Tariff of 1816. Following the important Treaty of Ghent that ended the War of 1812, Americans recognized the need for a strong domestic manufacturing sector.

US manufacturing was in its infancy and simply could not compete with the British goods that flooded American markets. The tariff of 1816 raised duties on specific imported goods, thereby helping US manufacturing to survive and stay in business.1

New England Manufacturing Tariff of Abominations

The surge in post-war nationalism symbolized by the Era of Good Feelings saw virtually the entire nation support the protectionist tariff. Only the New England states opposed the measure as the higher tariffs were bad for its commercial trading-based economy.

By the late 1820s southern support of tariffs had disappeared. The lack of manufacturing development in the south and rise of “King Cotton” with the help of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin meant that the protective tariffs only hurt the southern economy. Cotton was often subject to retaliatory tariffs from Britain and the south ended up paying more for manufactured goods.

New England states also reversed course and opened up to protective tariffs as their economy became less reliant on trade as manufacturing capacity increased.1

After the Tariff of 1824 increased duties on imported goods above the rates set in 1816, members of Congress attempted to pass yet another tariff in 1828.

Why Was the Tariff of Abominations Passed?

The Tariff of Abominations was passed in 1828 to raise import duties on foreign goods to help protect domestic American manufacturing business and increase federal revenues.

The tariff was passed in an election year and happened to be one of the last acts of John Quincy Adams’ presidency.

Interestingly, southerners and Andrew Jackson supporters who opposed tariff legislation were the ones to introduce the tariff of 1828. The plan was simple: design a bill that had no chance of passing Congress as it would hurt too many parties.

The tariff bill contained provisions that specifically raised import rates on several goods that did not help manufacturers whatsoever. Tariff duties on goods such as iron, hemp, flax, and woolen goods were specifically included into the bill that served virtually no purpose other than to raise prices that New England shipbuilders and commercial traders would pay.2

Jackson supporters bet that New Englanders would not possibly vote for a bill that harmed their economy. If New England congressmen voted against the tariff, it was all but dead, giving the southerners exactly what they wanted: no tariff.

Furthermore, Jackson’s men could then pin the blame for the lack of a tariff on northerners and John Quincy Adams which could hurt his reelection chances in 1828.3

John C Calhoun Tariff of Abominations

The strategy backfired as Congress eventually passed the Tariff of 1828 after minor iterations and Adams signed it into law.

New England Senators such as Daniel Webster eventually relented and voted in favor of the tariff despite the painful provisions. Webster was all too aware that Adams would be blamed if the bill failed to pass Congress and his chances of reelection would suffer.3

The tariff was so hated in the south that it was nicknamed the “Tariff of Abominations.”

Who did the Tariff of Abominations Help?

The Tariff of Abominations primarily helped western and mid-Atlantic states as well as the manufacturing sector at the expense of southern and New England states.

At the time the western and mid-Atlantic states were the “breadbasket” of the United States and agriculture dominated their economies. These states needed less competition within the United States to sell their agricultural goods and tariffs helped to eliminate foreign competition.3

The tariff also served to further protect American manufacturers located primarily in northern and western states from foreign competition. 

Jackson’s supporters purposely raised many rates in the Tariff of Abominations specifically to provoke northerners to vote against and defeat the bill. Adams could then be blamed for the failed tariff and western states could thus be coaxed into declaring for Jackson.2

The proposed rates were increased to as high as a 50% tax on specific raw materials such as woolen goods.

Tariff of Abominations important duties chart

Southerners were outraged at the bill and had no choice but to try and defeat it. Despite their best attempts, Congress passed the bill, with many in the south forgetting that members of the Jackson coalition originally devised the hated “Tariff of Abominations.”

Fraud was extremely common in collecting many of the raised duties. The Tariff of 1828 experimented with a new method of taxation that was based on the overall value of the goods and subjected them to a minimum tax threshold.4

This new method had extremely lax enforcement protocols and merchants consistently took advantage of the new law by undervaluing the worth of their goods to achieve more favorable tax rates.

Congress remedied the oversight by passing a new law in 1829 issuing stricter enforcement methods for duty collection.4 

Why Was the Tariff of Abominations Important?

The Tariff of Abominations was important as higher import duties heralded outrage in the south and directly led to the 1832 Nullification Crisis with the state of South Carolina.

South Carolina adopted an Ordinance of Nullification in 1832 declaring the Tariff of Abominations to be unconstitutional in the state. The Nullification Ordinance was heavily influenced by the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions in 1798-1799 that argued states should have the power to nullify unconstitutional laws.

The influential court cases of McCulloch v. Maryland in 1819 and Gibbons v. Ogden in 1824 reasserted the power of the federal government over state government; federal power was absolute. 

President Andrew Jackson responded forcefully to the crisis, believing that the sanctity of the Union was at stake. Only after a Compromise tariff lowering duties was passed in 1833 did the crisis dissipate and the Union remain intact.

Erie Canal aqueduct American System

The Nullification Crisis served as a major event of the Jacksonian Era and occurred simultaneously as the significant Worcester v. Georgia case that nearly caused the state of Georgia to align with South Carolina.

Despite the strong backlash to the Tariff of Abominations, tariffs remained a viable economic policy for the United States into the future. Along with a national bank (which Jackson struck down in the 1832 Bank War) and internal improvements such as the Erie Canal, tariffs were an integral part of the so-called American System that sought to help the nation grow and modernize.

The Tariff of Abominations played an important role in further increasing sectionalism in the United States that helped lead the nation down a path to the Civil War.

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To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.

Sources

1) Mitchell, Broadus. “The Abominable Tariff-Making 1789-1828.” Current History, vol. 42, no. 250, 1962, pp. 327–63. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/45310745.

2) Remini, Robert V. “Martin Van Buren and the Tariff of Abominations.” The American Historical Review, vol. 63, no. 4, 1958, pp. 903–17. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/1848947.

3) F. W. Taussig. “The Early Protective Movement and the Tariff of 1828.” Political Science Quarterly, vol. 3, no. 1, 1888, pp. 17–45. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/2138984.

4) Harding, S. B. “The ‘Minimum’ Principle in the Tariff of 1828 and Its Recent Revival.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 6, 1895, pp. 100–16. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1009093.

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