On May 19, 1828, U.S. President John Quincy Adams signed into law congressional legislation entitled “An Act in alteration of the several acts imposing duties on imports.” Commonly known as the Tariff of 1828, the measure raised revenue for the federal government by imposing duties (taxes) on manufactured products and some raw materials imported into the United States. Many Americans referred to the law as the Tariff of Abominations, because its provisions protected manufacturers in the Northeast and farmers in the West, at the expense of Southerners and New Englanders.
The bulk of support for the law came from the Middle and Western states (New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, and Kentucky), whose representatives voted 85 to 7 in favor of the bill. Members from New England and the South voted against the bill by a margin of 87 to 19. In a close ballot on April 22, 1828, the House approved the bill by a vote of 105-94.
In the Senate, the results were much the same. Four Southerners (one from Tennessee, one from Louisiana, and two from Kentucky) joined with six New Englanders and ten Senators from the Middle and Western states in favor of the bill. Five Northeasterners joined 16 Southerners who opposed the act. The tariff received Senate approval by a final vote of 26 to 21.
Nowhere was opposition to the Tariff of 1828 more pronounced than in the South, whose cotton-based economy, combined with limited manufacturing, dictated a high dependency on imported items. Compounding Southern concerns was the probability that higher tariffs would reduce commerce with England, making cotton less affordable for British merchants negatively impacted by the act.
South Carolina was the hotbed of Southern dissatisfaction with the Tariff of 1828. In December 1828, Vice-president John C. Calhoun (a native of the Palmetto State) anonymously penned two manuscripts, collectively known as the “South Carolina Exposition and Protest”, which outlined his objections to the tariff.
Calhoun acknowledged that Article I, Section 10, Clause 2 of the Constitution empowered Congress to establish import duties. However, he contended that the Constitution also limited Congressional authority to impose duties for the sole purpose of raising revenue. Calhoun claimed that Congress enacted the Tariff of 1828 to protect special interests, besides raising revenue. As Calhoun put it:
The facts are few and simple. The Constitution grants to Congress the power of imposing a duty on imports for revenue, which power is abused by being converted into an instrument of rearing up the industry of one section of the country on the ruins of another.
Thus, Calhoun argued the tariff was unconstitutional.
In the vice-president’s view, the section of the country that was facing ruination was the South. He contended:
We are the serfs of the system, out of whose labor is raised, not only the money paid into the Treasury, but the funds out of which are drawn the rich rewards of the manufacturer and his associates in interest. . . . The case, then, fairly stated between us and the manufacturing States is, that the Tariff gives them a protection against foreign competition in our own market, by diminishing, in the same proportion, our capacity to compete with our rivals, in the general market of the world.
Having made the case that the tariff was unconstitutional, Calhoun called upon the writing of another U.S. vice-president to remedy the situation. In 1799, Thomas Jefferson penned his “Kentucky Resolutions” in protest of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. In that manuscript, the author of the Declaration of Independence argued that the U. S. Constitution limits the powers of the federal government to those specifically enumerated in the document. He further stated that “the several states who formed” the Constitution, “being sovereign and independent, have the unquestionable right to judge of its infraction; and that a nullification, by those sovereignties, of all unauthorized acts done under colour of that instrument, is the rightful remedy.” To paraphrase, within their sovereign borders, each state may nullify federal laws they deem to be unconstitutional.
Without expressing the word “nullification”, Calhoun advanced the doctrine of nullification by asserting that if Congress did not redress South Carolina’s grievances to the Tariff of 1828:
that it will be her sacred duty to interpose;—duty to herself,—to the Union,—to the present, and to future generations, and to the cause of liberty over the world, to arrest the progress of a usurpation which, if not arrested, must, in its consequences, corrupt the public morals and destroy the liberty of the country.
The South Carolina legislature considered, but did not adopt Calhoun’s Exposition in December 1828. Four years later, in reaction to the Tariff of 1832, a statewide convention convened by the South Carolina legislature fully endorsed the doctrine of nullification, precipitating a Constitutional crisis that nearly led to warfare. Although the enactment of a compromise tariff in 1833 averted bloodshed, South Carolina’s adoption of the doctrine of nullification left the Palmetto State, and eventually its Southern neighbors, only one step removed from secession and civil war.