May 19, 1828 Tariff of Abominations

Protective tariffs worked to the advantage of the north as they tended to strengthen, the industrial economies. To the south, agricultural economies were more dependent on imported goods whether those came from the north, or from overseas.

Following the industrial revolution, Britain emerged as the economic powerhouse of Europe. As Napoleon Bonaparte attempted to throttle the British economy by shutting down exports to Europe, manufacturers across the UK sought out new trade partners. Among those were their own former colonies, in America.

In the United States, the low prices of British goods had a damaging affect on American manufacturing. Goods were flooding into the market at prices American companies, were unable to match. The tide increased after the war of 1812. Congress passed a tariff on British made goods in 1816 and upped the tax, eight years later.

Protective tariffs worked to the advantage of the north as they tended to strengthen, the industrial economies. To the south, agricultural economies were more dependent on imported goods whether those came from the north, or from overseas. The cotton states doubly resented protective tariffs as they made it more difficult, for their British trade partners to pay for exported cotton.

Today, the divide between Democrats and Republicans is a fact of life. In the 1820s, the first recognizable pieces of that system, were just falling into place. John Quincy Adams was elected in 1824 in what many described, as a “corrupt bargain”. The mid-terms of 1826 marked the first time Congress was in firm control of the President’s political opponents.

In 1828, southern and mid-Atlantic lawmakers agreed to concoct a tariff so egregious, the bill would never pass. The “Tariff of Abominations” weighed heavily on manufactured goods and therefore southern states but also on raw materials like iron, hemp (for rope) and flax, a direct shot at New England manufacturing. In so doing, future President Martin van Buren, then-Vice President John C. Calhoun and others expected to pull southern support in the final moments and thus to embarrass the President and his more conservative allies like Adams’ Secretary of State, Henry Clay.

Fun fact: Martin van Buren was born in Kinderhook New York where most of the residents, spoke Dutch. Van Buren was no exception, making the 8th President of the United States the only President to speak English, as a second language.

The plan worked nicely in the southern states, where the bill went down to defeat, 64-4. To their horror and astonishment, the thing received overwhelming support in the middle and western states. Even in New England where textile mills teetered on the brink of bankruptcy, lawmakers were swayed by the argument that, what was good for one region, was good for the nation. The tariff of abominations received 41% support, even in New England.

Political cartoon depicts the north getting fat on tariffs, at the expense of the south

President Adams was well aware the measure would damage him politically but he signed it into law regardless, on this day in 1828.

The President was right. His own vice president jumped ship to join Andrew Jackson’s ticket to destroy Adams for re-election in an electoral vote, of 178 to 83.  The “Era of Good Feelings” was ended. The age of the two-party system, had begun.

John C. Calhoun, (left) the only vice President to serve under two different Presidents, detested the law he had helped to create.

In December 1828, the outgoing/incoming vice President penned an anonymous pamphlet, urging nullification in his home state of South Carolina.

The South Carolina legislature printed 5,000 copies of Calhoun’s pamphlet but took none of the legislative measures, it argued for. Calhoun was out in the open in 1829, claiming the measure was unconstitutional and urging the law be declared null and void, in the sovereign state of South Carolina.

The issue created a split between Jackson and his vice President leading Calhoun to resign the vice Presidency.

Fun fact: While John C. Calhoun and Spiro T. Agnew are the only vice Presidents ever to resign, seven others have died in office, leaving the vice Presidency vacant for a total of 37 years and 290 days, about a fifth of the time, we’ve had a President.

President Jackson signed a reduced tariff into law in 1832 but, for South Carolina, it was too little, too late. The state called a convention that November and, by a vote of 136-26, voted that the tariffs of 1828 and 1832 were both unconstitutional and thereby null and void, in South Carolina.

Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson was not a man to be trifled with. At 13, Jackson received serious saber wounds at the hands of a British soldier, infuriated that the boy refused to shine his boots. In 1806, the man killed a Nashville lawyer in a duel while himself being shot, in the chest. He would carry that bullet in his body until 1831 when a navy doctor cut it out right there in the White House…without anesthesia. Another dueling opponent shot Jackson in 1813, this time, shattering his shoulder. He would carry that bullet in his body, until the day he died. As a General in the War of 1812, Jackson famously crushed an advancing British army, in the Battle of New Orleans.

As President, Jackson wasn’t about to tolerate a nullification crisis under his watch and threatened to make war, on South Carolina. Congress passed the Force Act, granting Jackson the authority to take any measure, he deemed necessary. South Carolina began military preparations for war, with the federal government.

Bloodshed was averted when Calhoun and Clay stepped in, with a compromise. Under their plan, the tariff of 1833 would begin to reduce rates over 20% by one tenth every two years until they were all back to 20%, in 1842.

South Carolina reconvened and repealed the ordnance of nullification. Lest anyone doubt their true intentions or deny the state’s right to do so, the convention then went on to nullify Congress’ Force Act.

It didn’t much matter. The “Black Tariff” of 1842 reinstated the old duties and increased dutiable imports, to 85%.

By the 1850s, westward expansion brought back the issue of “State’s Rights”, this time over the expansion, of slavery.

The next crisis was not to be averted, but by rivers of blood.

May 22, 1856 State’s Rights

The issue of slavery had joined and become so intertwined with ideas of self-determination, as to be indistinguishable.

Since the earliest days of the Republic, those supporting strong federal government found themselves opposed by those favoring greater self-determination by the states. In the southern regions, climate conditions led to dependence on agriculture, the rural economies of the south producing cotton, rice, sugar, indigo and tobacco. Colder states to the north tended to develop manufacturing economies, urban centers growing up in service to hubs of transportation and the production of manufactured goods.

domestic-tariffs-at-the-souths-expense (1)In the first half of the 19th century, 90% of federal government revenue came from tariffs on foreign manufactured goods. A lion’s share of this revenue was collected in the south, with the region’s greater dependence on imported goods.  Much of this federal largesse was spent in the north, with the construction of railroads, canals and other infrastructure.

The debate over economic issues and rights of self-determination, so-called ‘state’s rights’, grew and sharpened with the “nullification crisis” of 1832-33, when South Carolina declared such tariffs to be unconstitutional and therefore null and void within the state. A cartoon from the time depicted “Northern domestic manufacturers getting fat at the expense of impoverishing the South under protective tariffs.”

Chattel slavery pre-existed the earliest days of the colonial era, from Canada to Brazil and around the world. Moral objections to what was really a repugnant institution could be found throughout, but economic forces had as much to do with ending the practice, as any other. The “peculiar institution” died out first in the colder regions of the US and may have done so in warmer climes as well, but for Eli Whitney’s invention of a cotton engine (‘gin’) in 1794.

It takes ten man-hours to remove the seeds to produce a single pound of cotton. By comparison, a cotton gin can process about a thousand pounds a day, at comparatively little expense.

54521_cotton-pick_lg

The year of Whitney’s invention, the South exported 138,000 pounds a year to Europe and the northern states. Sixty years later, Great Britain alone was importing 600 million pounds a year from the southern states. Cotton was King, and with good reason.  The stuff is easily grown, highly transportable, and can be stored indefinitely, compared with food crops.  The southern economy turned overwhelmingly to the one crop, and its need for plentiful, cheap labor.

25The issue of slavery had joined and become so intertwined with ideas of self-determination, as to be indistinguishable.

The first half of the 19th century was one of westward expansion, generating frequent and sharp conflicts between pro and anti-slavery factions. The Missouri compromise of 1820 attempted to reconcile the sides, defining which territories would legalize slavery, and which would be “free”.

The short-lived “Wilmot Proviso” of 1846 sought to ban slavery in new territories, after which the Compromise of 1850 attempted to strike a balance.  The Kansas Nebraska Act of 1854 created two new territories, essentially repealing the Missouri Compromise and allowing settlers to determine their own direction.

This attempt to democratize the issue had the effect of drawing up battle lines.  Pro-slavery forces established a territorial capital in Lecompton, while “antis” set up an alternative government in Topeka.

78451229_783584_lIn Washington, Republicans backed the anti-slavery side, while most Democrats supported their opponents.  On May 20, 1856, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner took to the floor of the Senate and denounced the Kansas-Nebraska Act.  Never known for verbal restraint, Sumner attacked the measure’s sponsors Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois (he of the later Lincoln-Douglas debates), and Andrew Butler of South Carolina by name, accusing the pair of “consorting with the harlot, slavery”.  Douglas was in the audience at the time and quipped “this damn fool Sumner is going to get himself shot by some other damn fool”.

In the territories, the standoff had long since escalated to violence. Upwards of a hundred or more were killed between 1854 – 1861, in a period known as “Bleeding Kansas”.

The town of Lawrence was established by anti-slavery settlers in 1854, and soon became the focal point of pro-slavery violence. Emotions were at a boiling point when Douglas County Sheriff Samuel Jones was shot trying to arrest free-state settlers on April 23, 1856. Jones was driven out of town but he would return.

Lawrence Massacre
Sack of Lawrence, Kansas

The day after Sumner’s speech, a posse of 800 pro-slavery forces converged on Lawrence Kansas, led by Sheriff Jones.  The town was surrounded to prevent escape and much of it burned to the ground.  This time there was only one fatality; a slavery proponent who was killed by falling masonry.  Seven years later, Confederate guerrilla Robert Clarke Quantrill carried out the second sack of Lawrence.  This time, most of the men and boys of the town were murdered where they stood, with little chance to defend themselves.

Meanwhile, Preston Brooks, Senator Butler’s nephew and a Member of Congress from South Carolina, had read over Sumner’s speech of the day before.  Brooks was an inflexible proponent of slavery and took mortal insult from Sumner’s words.

 

Preston Brooks (left), Charles Sumner, (right)

Brooks was furious and wanted to challenge the Senator to a duel. He discussed it with fellow South Carolina Representative Laurence Keitt, who explained that dueling was for gentlemen of equal social standing. Sumner was no gentleman, he said.  No better than a drunkard.

Brooks had been shot in a duel years before, and walked with a heavy cane. Resolved to publicly thrash the Senator from Massachusetts, the Congressman entered the Senate building on May 22, in the company of Congressman Keitt and Virginia Representative Henry A. Edmundson.

Caning of Charles SumnerThe trio approached Sumner, who was sitting at his desk writing letters. “Mr. Sumner”, Brooks said, “I have read your speech twice over carefully. It is a libel on South Carolina, and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine.”

Sumner’s desk was bolted to the floor.  He never had a chance. The Senator began to rise when Brooks brought the cane down on his head. Over and over the cane crashed down, while Keitt brandished a pistol, warning onlookers to “let them be”. Blinded by his own blood, Sumner tore the desk from the floor in his struggle to escape, losing consciousness as he tried to crawl away. Brooks rained down blows the entire time, even after the body lay motionless, until finally, the cane broke apart.

states_rights_imgIn the next two days, a group of unarmed men will be hacked to pieces by anti-slavery radicals, on the banks of Pottawatomie Creek.

The 80-year-old nation forged inexorably onward, to a Civil War which would kill more Americans than every war from the American Revolution to the War on Terror, combined.

StateRights_and_Nullification

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