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Tariff of 1828

May 19, 1828

Also known as the Tariff of Abominations, the Tariff of 1828, prompted United States Vice-President John C. Calhoun to anonymously pen his Exposition and Protest, which invoked the doctrine of nullification in challenging the constitutionality of the act.

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.

Confirmation of the sectional division engendered by the Tariff of 1828 is evidenced by the voting results regarding the measure in the House of Representatives. 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 eighty-five to seven in favor of enactment. Conversely, members from the New England and the South voted against the bill by a margin of eighty-seven to nineteen. In a close ballot on April 22, 1828, the House approved the bill by a vote of 105 to ninety-four.

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 sixteen Southerners who opposed the act. The tariff received Senate approval by a final vote of twenty-six to twenty-one.

Nowhere was opposition to the Tariff of 1828 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 bill. Calhoun acknowledged that the U.S. 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

Having made a 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 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, then it would be his home state's duty 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 bloodshed was averted by the enactment of a compromise tariff in 1833, 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.

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