On May 19, 1828, U.S. President John Quincy Adams approved an act of Congress commonly known as the Tariff of 1828. Congress designed the legislation to raise revenue for the federal government by imposing duties (taxes) on manufactured products and some raw materials imported into the United States. Many Americans, especially in the South, 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 tariff impacted the South severely because its cotton-based economy, combined with limited manufacturing, dictated a high dependency on imported items.
By 1832, Congress became more receptive to Southern grievances regarding the Tariff of Abominations. On July 14, 1832, it enacted, and President Andrew Jackson approved, a new tariff commonly known as the Tariff of 1832. Although the new law reduced or eliminated some protective measures adopted in 1828, it did not go far enough to appease some Southerners, especially in South Carolina.
South Carolina Reacts
The lower duties enacted in the Tariff of 1832 did not placate firebrands in the South. On November 24, 1832, the Convention of the People of South Carolina endorsed a proclamation commonly known as the South Carolina Ordinance of Nullification. The ordinance declared the tariffs of 1828 and 1832 to be “null and void” in South Carolina because they were unconstitutional. The proclamation also stated that if “any act authorizing the employment of a military or naval force against the State of South Carolina . . . the people of this State will henceforth hold themselves absolved from all further obligation to maintain or preserve their political connection with the people of the other States; and will forthwith proceed to organize a separate government.”
President Jackson Responds
On December 10, 1832, President Andrew Jackson responded with his own proclamation stating that “I consider, then, the power to annul a law of the United States, assumed by one State, incompatible with the existence of the Union.” Jackson made clear his determination “to execute the laws (and) to preserve the Union by all constitutional means,” including “recourse to force; and . . . the shedding of a brother’s blood,” if necessary. To ensure that Southern firebrands did not take his warning this warning as an idle threat, Jackson sent military reinforcements to the federal fortifications in Charleston Harbor. Not intimidated by Jackson’s threat to use force to enforce the tariff laws, the South Carolina legislature mobilized the state militia.
The Force Act
With the situation at an impasse, roughly two months later, Congress weighed in by enacting An Act further to provide for the collection of duties on imports on March 2, 1833. Commonly known as the Force Act, the legislation authorized “the president to use armed forces to protect customs officers and to prevent the unauthorized removal of untaxed vessels and cargo” in violation of the tariffs of 1828 and 1832.
With the nation teetering on the brink of civil war, Senators Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun hurriedly brokered a compromise measure to diffuse the situation. Their negotiations produced a new tariff proposal entitled An Act to modify the act of the fourteenth July, one thousand eight hundred and thirty-two, and all other acts imposing duties on imports. Congress designed the new tariff, more commonly known as the Tariff of 1833, to reduce protectionist duties gradually until 1842. In 1842, all duties would revert to a uniform level in line with the Tariff of 1816. The compromise provided Southerners the tariff relief they sought while giving domestic manufacturers nine years to adjust to reduced government protection when competing with foreign rivals.
On February 25, 1833, the House of Representatives approved the compromise measure by a vote of 119-85, as a substitute for a tariff bill already under consideration in that body. Southern representatives backed the tariff by a nearly unanimous vote of 55-1. Western legislators strongly supported the bill by a margin of 30-9. Northerners solidly opposed the legislation 34-75.
In the upper chamber, all twelve southern senators supported the compromise measure. Westerners consented by a slim margin of 6-5, and northern senators were indecisive, splitting their vote 11-11. On March 1, the Senate approved the bill by a vote of 29-16. President Jackson signed the new tariff into law on March 2, the same day he signed the Force Act.
The enactment of the compromise tariff, coupled with the Force Act, achieved the desired results. The Convention of the People of South Carolina re-convened in Columbia and on March 15, 1833, the delegates voted 153-4 to rescind the Nullification Ordinance. For the time being, the Union remained intact.
The Tariff of 1833 remained in effect until shortly after the Whig Party gained control of the federal government in 1841. A year later, the Whigs enacted a new tariff often referred to as the Black Tariff of 1842. The new tariff negated the steep reduction in duties that the Tariff of 1833 promised, only months after they became law. Sectional disagreements over tariffs, in general, and protectionism, in particular, continued to be a major issue that divided the nation and challenged the survival of the Union.