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South Carolina Exposition and Protest

December 1828

In December 1828, United States Vice-President John C. Calhoun anonymously penned two documents collectively known as the South Carolina Exposition and Protest, which outlined his objections to the Tariff of 1828.

On May 19, 1828, United States President John Quincy Adams approved "An Act in alteration of the several acts imposing duties on imports." Commonly known as the Tariff of 1828, the legislation 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.

Nowhere was opposition to the law more pronounced than in the South, where the 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 the United States ;Constitution empowered Congress to establish import duties to raise revenue. Nevertheless, he argued, the Tariff of 1828 was unconstitutional because its primary purpose was to protect special interest groups. 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." In the vice-president's view, the section of the country that was facing ruination was the South. "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 a case that the tariff was unconstitutional, Calhoun called upon the writing of another United States vice-president to remedy the situation. In 1799, Thomas Jefferson penned his Kentucky Resolutions in protest to the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. In that manuscript, the author of the Declaration of Independence argued that the powers of the federal government are limited to those expressly enumerated in the Constitution. Jefferson avowed 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." Without mentioning the word, Calhoun's Exposition 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 endorse Calhoun's manuscript in December 1828. Four years later, in reaction to the Tariff of 1832, the South Carolina legislature fully embraced the doctrine of nullification, precipitating a Constitutional crisis that nearly led to warfare. Although bloodshed was averted by the enactment of a compromise tariff in 1833, the Nullification Crisis (1832-1833) inched the Palmetto State and eventually its Southern neighbors one step closer to secession and to civil war.

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