Economics and Business

U.S. Economic Legislation

What was the Tariff of Abominations?

In 1828 the U.S. Congress passed a bill putting high tariffs (government taxes) on imported goods. The measure was intended to protect the burgeoning industries of New England, where numerous factories had opened during the first three decades of the century and the manufacture of finished goods defined the region’s economy. Congress figured that by placing high taxes on goods from other countries, Americans would buy American-made products. But southern farmers had come to rely on cheaper imported goods. Believing the 1828 legislation was overly protective of the nation’s industrial interests, southerners dubbed it the “tariff of abominations.” Vice President John C. Calhoun (1782–1850), from South Carolina, openly and strongly criticized the tax, pronouncing that any state could declare null a federal law it deemed unconstitutional. In response, Congress took measures to lower the tariffs, but not eliminate them. South Carolina remained dissatisfied with the legislation, and in 1832 the state declared the tariff act null and void. Further, it threatened secession from the Union. President Andrew Jackson (1767–1845), unwilling to tolerate such rebelliousness and determined to enforce the federal law at all costs, asked Congress to pass the Force Bill—legislation allowing the nation’s armed forces to collect the tariffs. Jackson’s move inspired tremendous opposition in Congress. The Senate leader of the anti-Jackson contingency was Henry Clay (1777–1852) of Kentucky. Clay, who had earned himself the nickname “Great Pacificator” for his work in crafting the Missouri Compromise (1820), presented another compromise in 1833. He proposed that duties on certain goods could remain high but others should be gradually reduced over time. The Compromise Tariff authored by Clay averted an all-out conflict in the nation. The measure was passed and thereafter tariffs were adjusted depending on the prevailing economic conditions. But the fury over the Tariff of Abominations further revealed the North-South differences and the federal-government-versus-states’-rights issues that would inspire the southern states—led by South Carolina—to secede from the Union in 1860 and 1861, bringing on the American Civil War (1861–65).


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