Historical Tariffs

In a weird sort of historically nerdy way, it has been fascinating watching how tariffs are becoming politically relevant.  I have no comment on Trump’s tariff policies, not for the usual reason of letting you make your own decisions; this time it is because I have absolutely no idea if higher tariffs are good or bad.  My odd fascination is because for much of this country’s history, tariffs were one of the most debated issues.  In fact, in the Gilded Age, bringing up tariff policies was possibly the single greatest way to start a bar brawl.  Seeing politicians get so riled up about tariffs is not new; it is just history repeating itself.  Actually, our current tariff fight is not even that rowdy; in 1832, tariffs almost started a civil war.

One negative aspect of our current tariff fight is that we have yet to give Trump’s tariffs cool names.  In the 1830s we dealt with the Tariff of Abominations.  Basically, in May of 1828 President John Quincy Adams singed the 1828 Tariff into law, raising the tariff to an all-time high.  The protective tariff was meant to help growing northern industry and agriculture compete with cheaper European goods by making the foreign goods more expensive.  The problem was the tariff did not assist the South and instead required them to pay higher prices for those goods.

The South, who saw the tariff as unfair, labeled it the Tariff of Abominations and it is partly responsible for Adam’s defeat in the 1828 election to Andrew Jackson and his running mate John C. Calhoun of South Carolina.  Calhoun has an interesting political history, he was Adam’s current vice president in 1828, but was running on Jackson’s ticket against Adams in that election.  One reason for Calhoun’s split from Adams was the tariff.  In December of that year, after the election was over, but while still V.P. to the lame duck Adams, Calhoun wrote a document called the South Carolina Exposition and Protest.  In short, the document said that South Carolina had the right to nullify the tariff in the state, a concept first introduced by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson in the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions in 1798.  The document talked about nullification as a theory but did not put it into practice mainly for the fact that Jackson, a state’s rights southerner, had won the presidency and would put things right, or so it was thought.

Jackson, however, once in office did nothing to reduce the tariff.  With an eye towards reelection, Jackson does not want to lose the shaky support he had in the north and knew he already had southern support.  He also appreciated the income the tariff brought to the government, as he was trying to pay down the national debt.  The tariff, as well as a sexual scandal, pitted Jackson and his V.P. against each other.  The split grew large enough that Calhoun resigned his position to return to South Carolina to run for the Senate.  Yet, before he quit, Calhoun gave the Fort Hill Address in his native state calling for nullification of the tariff.

In 1832, congress, trying to calm the south, passed the Tariff of 1832, which lowered the tariff but retained its protective properties.  For Calhoun and South Carolina it was too little too late.  In November of that year, South Carolina called for a convention and passed an ordinance of nullification for both the 1828 and 1832 tariffs.  Beginning in the next year the state would no longer collect tariffs.  They also put their state militia on notice to protect their decision from the Federal Government.

Jackson was furious.  In a letter to South Carolina, he stated that no state could refuse to follow a federal law.  The U.S. was a collection of people not states and that states were no longer sovereign, rejecting Calhoun’s compact theory.  Jackson also asked Congress for authority to use the military to enforce the tariff in March 1833.  Congress agreed and passed the Force Bill.

Before the Army marched on South Carolina, Henry Clay pushed a compromise tariff through congress that would reduce the tariff gradually.  South Carolina accepted the new tariff and repealed nullification.  Yet to save face they also nullified the Force Bill, showing that they still believed in the principle. 

In what is now called the Nullification Crisis, the United States was on the brink of civil war.  This was the scariest tariff controversy, but not the only major fight.  Support for the tariff was one of the few major differences between Republicans and Democrats during the 1870s-1890s.  Major battles were waged over tariffs such as the 1890 McKinley Tariff and into the next century with the 1909 Payne-Aldrich Tariff and the 1930 Smoot-Hawley Tariff just to name a few.

What Trump is trying to do with trade may or may not be wise; time will tell.  However, what he is doing is nothing new.  So as before with so many Trump issues, write your social media posts and criticize the president’s decisions, but make correct historical arguments.  The battle of tariffs is as old as America and at times, the stakes have been even higher, yet we are still here.  We have yet heard arguments to nullify the laws or prepared to march our army into any states, so at least we are better off than we were in 1833.

Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma.  

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