Tariffs have been around since the beginning of the American republic. Tariffs are a tax on imported manufactured or agricultural products, and often their purpose is to stimulate domestic manufacturing and production. By taxing imported goods, domestic manufacturers and producers are less likely to face international competition for their products, and American consumers are more likely to purchase cheaper domestic products than expensive imports.
Tariffs were a key part of the American System, championed by President John Quincy Adams and Secretary of State Henry Clay.
The program consisted of three major initiatives:
Adams, in particular, envisioned that the federal government would play a key role in all three initiatives behind the American System. Indeed, he was convinced that the federal government had to assume such responsibilities if the United States was to become respectable to the rest of the world.
“While dwelling with pleasing satisfaction upon the superior excellence of our political institutions, let us not be unmindful that liberty is power, that the nation blessed with the largest portion of liberty must in proportion to its numbers be the most powerful nation upon earth, and that the tenure of power by man is, in the moral purposes of his Creator, upon condition that it shall be exercised to ends of beneficence, to improve the condition of himself and his fellow men.”
The tariff was central to Adams’s plans and, in 1828, Congress enacted a significant increase in the tariff on imported manufactured goods, one that amounted to 50 percent of their value. But the tariff increase — combined with Adams’s other proposals that envisioned a greater role for the federal government in national development — would prompt negative reactions from those who believed that the tariff benefited one section, namely northern manufacturing, at the expense of southern, cash-crop agriculture, which depended upon imported goods.
The American System, specifically the 1828 tariff, stirred southern and western sentiment against a perceived bias toward northern manufacturers by the federal government. This perception, combined with the “corrupt bargain” of 1824, highlighted the cronyism of Washington politics and argued that the Adams administration’s economic proposals would benefit only a small, privileged class at the expense of ordinary citizens.
Andrew Jackson was the perfect political figure to take advantage of this sentiment and frustration. He had little formal education, but he appeared to be the quintessential self-made man. After relatively humble beginnings on the South Carolina frontier, by the first decade of the 19th century, he had made his fortune on the Tennessee frontier. He then rose to national prominence during the War of 1812 — specifically for defeating the British at the Battle of New Orleans. By the 1820s, he was among the richest men in Tennessee. His plantation, the Hermitage (located outside of Nashville), was worked by well over 100 African-American slaves.
Throughout the 1828 election campaign, Jackson rode a wave of popular support that was emblematic of the advent of universal suffrage among white males. At the local level, Jackson’s supporters worked to bring in as many new voters as possible. From Nashville, Tennessee, the Jackson campaign organized supporters around the nation through editorials in partisan newspapers and other publications. Pro-Jackson rallies, parades, and other rituals throughout the nation further broadcast the message that Jackson stood for the common man against a political elite that backed John Quincy Adams, who was running for re-election. Southern opposition to the 1828 tariff also contributed to Jackson’s campaign.
That voters in every state (with the exception of South Carolina) were able to select their presidential electors instead of the state legislatures by 1828, combined with the rigorous campaign, ensured Jackson a significant victory over Adams in the 1828 election. He captured 56 percent of the popular vote and 68 percent of the votes in the Electoral College. In addition, he carried the West and the South as well as Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, northeastern states voted overwhelmingly for Adams.
Jackson rode a wave of political fervor that celebrated the common man and limited government, and this ultimately provided the foundation for a new political coalition — the Democratic Party.
However, after arriving in office in the spring of 1829, Jackson quickly had to confront the controversy that surrounded the tariff and, with it, the tensions between sectional and national interests.
Shortly after the tariff of 1828 had been enacted, Vice-President John C. Calhoun anonymously wrote a report titled “South Carolina Exposition and Protest” on behalf of the South Carolina state legislature. In it, Calhoun articulated a growing fear among many southerners that the federal government could exercise undue power over the states and, in the process, enact policies that harmed their section. Part of Calhoun’s report is provided below:
Calhoun’s “report” highlights one of the greatest contradictions associated with the rise of democracy in the United States during the first half of the 19th century, namely the idea held by southern slaveowners that a democratic majority could harm their section’s interests. By insisting upon “sovereign powers” between the federal and state governments, Calhoun’s argument opened the door for nullification.
Calhoun’s resentment toward the tariff and his advocacy of nullification were tied directly to the South’s reliance on cash-crop agriculture, which was becoming increasingly centered on cotton cultivation, and racial slavery. Because the southern economy relied on agriculture, it depended upon the importing of manufactured goods. In turn, a higher tariff on imported goods, although beneficial to northern manufacturers, was detrimental to the South because it raised the prices on goods that the region depended upon. Thus, Calhoun’s theory of nullification — or the voiding of any unwelcome federal law — provided southern slaveowners, who were a minority in the United States, with an argument for resisting the national government if it acted contrary to their interests.
The controversy over the tariff was also tied to economics, specifically the price of cotton. By 1831, the price of cotton dropped to eight cents per pound (over a decade earlier, the price for cotton was as high as 31 cents per pound). Although the overall increase in cotton production in the South (combined with decreased demand for cotton by Great Britain) was the primary reason behind this decline in prices, many southern planters blamed their economic struggles on the tariff for raising the prices they had to pay for imported goods while their own income shrank.
However, Andrew Jackson dismissed Calhoun’s argument, and did not make the repeal of the tariff a priority for his administration. Similar to his opponent in the 1828 election, John Quincy Adams, Jackson noted that the Constitution gave Congress the ability to “lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises” (Foner, 2014). In addition to the constitutional argument, Jackson considered nullification a direct threat to the unity of the American republic.
EXAMPLEThe divide between Jackson and Calhoun was apparent at a White House dinner in 1830. While staring at Calhoun, Jackson stood and gave a toast: “Our Federal Union — it must be preserved.” Calhoun replied immediately, “The Union — next to our liberty most dear.”
In response to criticism from Calhoun and South Carolina, Jackson advocated only for a reduction in tariff rates. In 1832, Congress lowered the tariff on imported goods, a move designed to calm southerners. It did not have the desired effect, however.
Calhoun and other advocates of nullification still claimed their right to override federal law and, in November 1832, South Carolina passed the Ordinance of Nullification, which declared the 1828 and 1832 tariffs null and void within its boundaries. The governor of South Carolina even called for a force of 10,000 volunteers to defend the state against any federal action.
On the issue of nullification, South Carolina stood alone for the time being. In fact, several southern states passed resolutions that condemned South Carolina’s Ordinance of Nullification.
Jackson responded by insisting upon the power of the federal government. In December 1832, his administration issued a Nullification Proclamation, which declared that no state had the power to void a federal law. In early 1833, Congress passed a Force Bill, which authorized the president to use the federal army and navy to ensure compliance with federal law.
The crisis was averted with a passage of a compromise tariff in 1833, which reduced the duty on imported goods considerably. South Carolina then rescinded its ordinance of nullification.
This tutorial curated and/or authored by Matthew Pearce, Ph.D
Source: Foner, E. (2014). Voices of freedom: a documentary history (4th ed., Vol. 1). New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Image of 1828 Electoral College Map, Public Domain, http://bit.ly/2jhbZHW, Derived from Openstax tutorial 10.1 http://bit.ly/2j44MNP Some sections edited or removed for brevity., Derived from Openstax tutorial 10.2 http://bit.ly/2jycr5B Some sections edited or removed for brevity., Derived from Openstax tutorial 10.3 http://bit.ly/2kbEY3U Some sections edited or removed for brevity.