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Tariff of Abominations

By

John C. Calhoun

John C. Calhoun of South Carolina

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Definition:

The Tariff of Abominations was the name given to the Tariff of 1828 by outraged southerners who felt the tax on imports was excessive and unfairly targeted their region of the country.

The tariff, which became law in the spring of 1828, set very high duties on goods imported into the United States, and it did create major economic problems for the South. Adding insult to injury, the law had been devised to protect manufacturers in the Northeast.

As the South was not a manufacturing center, it had to either import finished goods from Europe (primarily Britain) or buy goods made in the North.

With a protective tariff essentially creating artificially high prices, the South was at a severe disadvantage when buying products from either Northern or foreign manufacturers.

The 1828 tariff created a further indirect problem for the South, as it reduced business with England, which in turn made it more difficult for the English to afford cotton grown in the American South.

Intense feeling about the Tariff of Abominations prompted John C. Calhoun to anonymously write essays setting forth his theory of nullification, in which states could ignore federal laws. Calhoun's protest against the federal government eventually led to the Nullification Crisis.

Background of the 1828 Tariff

The Tariff of 1828 was one of a series of protective tariffs passed in America. After the War of 1812, when English manufacturers began to flood the American market with cheap goods that undercut and threatened new American industry, the U.S. Congress responded by setting a tariff in 1816. Another tariff was passed in 1824.

Those tariffs were designed to be protective, meaning they were intended to drive up the price of imported goods and thereby protect American factories from British competition.

The 1828 tariff actually came into being as part of a complicated strategy designed to cause problems for President John Quincy Adams. Supporters of Andrew Jackson hated Adams following his election in the "Corrupt Bargain" election of 1824.

The Jackson people drew up legislation with very high tariffs on imports necessary to both the North and South, on the assumption that the bill would not pass. And the president, it was assumed, would be blamed for the failure of the tariff and it would cost him among his supporters in the Northeast.

The strategy backfired when the tariff bill passed in Congress on May 11, 1828. President John Quincy Adams signed it into law.

The new tariff imposed high import duties on iron, molasses, distilled spirits, flax, and various finished goods. The law was instantly unpopular, with people in different regions disliking parts of it. But opposition was greatest in the South.

John C. Calhoun's Opposition to the Tariff of Abominations

The intense southern opposition to the 1828 tariff was led by John C. Calhoun, a dominating political figure from South Carolina. Calhoun had grown up on the frontier of the late 1700s, yet he had been educated at Yale College in Connecticut and also received legal training in New England.

In national politics, Calhoun had emerged, by the mid-1820s, as an eloquent and dedicated advocate for the South (and also for the institution of slavery, upon which the economy of the South depended).

Calhoun's plans to run for president had been thwarted by lack of support in 1824, and he wound up running for vice president with John Quincy Adams. So in 1828 Calhoun was actually the vice president of the man who signed the hated tariff into law.

Calhoun Published a Strong Protest Against the Tariff

In late 1828 Calhoun wrote an essay titled "South Carolina Exposition and Protest," which was anonymously published. (In a peculiar set of circumstances, Calhoun was not only the vice president of the incumbent Adams, but was also the running mate of Andrew Jackson, who was campaigning to unseat Adams in the election of 1828.)

In his essay Calhoun criticized the concept of a protective tariff, arguing that tariffs should only be used to raise revenue, not to artificially boost business in certain regions of the nation. And Calhoun called South Carolinians "serfs of the system," detailing how they were forced to pay higher prices for necessities.

Calhoun's essay was presented to the state legislature of South Carolina on December 19, 1828. Despite public outrage over the tariff, and Calhoun's forceful denunciation of it, the state legislature took no action over the tariff.

Calhoun's authorship of the essay was kept secret, though he made his view public during the Nullification Crisis, which erupted when the issue of tariffs rose to prominence in the early 1830s.

Significance of the Tariff of Abominations

The Tariff of Abominations did not lead to any extreme action (such as secession) by the state of South Carolina. However, the 1828 tariff greatly increased resentment toward the North, a feeling which persisted for decades and helped to lead the nation toward the Civil War.

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