Tariffs and the Nullification Crisis

This entry is part 5 of 18 in the series The Roots of the Civil War
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In 1828 the Congress passed a new tariff that the Southerners immediately named the Tariff of Abominations. Northern industries were being driven out of business by low-priced imports and the Northern representatives felt that a higher tariff on low-priced goods was necessary.

However, the Southerners saw it as an attack on them because it forced them to pay higher prices on the goods that they didn’t produce. More importantly,  reducing the exportation of British goods to the US made it difficult for the British to pay for the cotton they imported from the South. The South saw this as a direct attack on their way of life.

The first protective tariff was passed by Congress in 1816; its tariff rates were increased in 1824. Southern states such as South Carolina contended that the tariff was unconstitutional and were opposed to the newer protectionist tariffs, but Western agricultural states favored them, as well as New England’s industries. The Southerners believed that they were unconstitutional because they favored one section of the country over another.

The Tariff of 1828 had the desired effect. Britain reduced their importation of Southern cotton, weakening the Southern economy. THe South was forced to buy more goods from the North rather than Britain. These purchases strengthened Northern manufacturers.

John C. CalhounDespite the sufferings of the South, the US experienced net economic growth with US GDP increasing from $888 million in 1828 to $1.118 billion by 1832 largely due to growth of the Northern manufacturing base.

But the South did not accept the tariff and it created a split within the Democratic Party. Andrew Jackson had been elected President in 1828 with John C. Calhoun of South Carolina as his Vice President. The tariff’s opponents expected Jackson to push for significant reductions in the tariff’s rates but he didn’t address their concerns. In Washington, an open split on the issue occurred between Jackson and Vice-President Calhoun.

On July 14, 1832, Jackson signed into law the Tariff of 1832 which made some reductions in tariff rates. Calhoun resigned on December 10 of the same year.

The Tariff of 1832 had been substantially written by by former President John Quincy Adams, who had been elected to the House of Representatives and appointed chairman of the Committee on Manufactures. It reduced the existing tariffs to remedy the conflict created by the tariff of 1828, but it was still deemed unsatisfactory by some in the South, especially in South Carolina. South Carolinian opposition to this tariff and its predecessor, the Tariff of Abominations, caused the Nullification Crisis.

The Tariff of 1828 had pushed the duties on citizens to as high as 45 percent on the value of specific manufactured goods. The 1832 act brought the rate down to 35%. As an example, the duty on hemp, which had been $60 a ton in 1828, was reduced to $40. Even then southerners were not happy with it. Eventually, their unrest and dissatisfaction was what led to the nullification crisis. Along with that, another bill was passed, Tariff of 1833.

The tariffs caused the South Carolina legislature to pass the Ordinance of Nullification. This law declared by the power of the State that the federal Tariffs of 1828 and 1832 were unconstitutional and therefore null and void within the sovereign boundaries of South Carolina.

Southerners were violently opposed to the 1828 Tariff of Abominations but their opposition to tariffs had gone much further back. After the War of 1812 the national government had developed a policy of national tariffs to protect American industries from low-priced European imports.

By 1828 South Carolina state politics was increasingly organized around the tariff issue. When the Jackson administration failed to take any actions to address their concerns, the most radical faction in the state began to advocate that the state itself declare the tariff null and void within South Carolina.

In November 1832 a state convention declared that the tariffs of both 1828 and 1832 were unconstitutional and unenforceable in South Carolina after February 1, 1833. Military preparations to resist anticipated federal enforcement were initiated by the state. In late February both a Force Bill, authorizing the President to use military forces against South Carolina, and a new negotiated tariff, the Compromise Tariff of 1833, satisfactory to South Carolina were passed by Congress. The South Carolina convention reconvened and repealed its Nullification Ordinance on March 11, 1833.

The tariff rates were lowered and the crisis was over but nullification would rear its head once again in the 1850s. Southerners would return to it under a new name: states’ rights.

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