Tariff of Abominations

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By the late 1820s the southeastern region of the United States was economically depressed. While the industrial northeast flourished, the agrarian south languished. Many historians now recognize that the soil of the older southern states was worn out and depleted, especially compared to the richer soil of the new Gulf states; at the time, however, many southerners blamed their fiscal ailments on tariffs. Leadership in the fight against the tariff fell to South Carolina, where the plantation aristocrats enjoyed political power and where the relative decline in prosperity was the greatest.

South Carolina's most eloquent spokesperson was John C. Calhoun (17821850), who by the late 1820s had completed his philosophical transformation from ardent nationalist to states' rights advocate. In fact, Calhoun then advocated the ultimate in states' rights thinkinga belief in, and support of, the doctrine of nullification, which Thomas Jefferson (17431826) and James Madison (17511836) first described in the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions of 1798. In 1828, while running as a vice presidential candidate, Calhoun anonymously penned the "South Carolina Exposition and Protest," an essay objecting to the Tariff of 1828, known to southerners as the Tariff of Abominations because of its high protective duties. The tariff was intended to protect the burgeoning industries of New England, where numerous factories had opened during the first three decades of the nineteenth century, but encountered much opposition from the south. Calhoun's authorship of the "South Carolina Exposition and Protest" remained secret, and for four years South Carolina did not act upon it, hoping that President Andrew Jackson (18291837) would fight for a lower tariff. In "Exposition," and in a later paper called "A Disquisition on Government," Calhoun explained his doctrine of nullification.

Contrary to popular belief, Calhoun did not advocate the secession of the southern states, an event which occurred during the American Civil War (18611865). Rather, he believed that nullification would prevent the disruption of the Union, and he saw nullification as an antidote to secession. The basic tenets of his argument were as follows. Each state was sovereign, and the Union was a contract between the states. Each individual state entered into an agreement with the others, and the U.S. Constitution outlined the terms of that covenant. The Constitution provided for a separation of powers between the states and the federal government, but not for a division of sovereignty. For sovereignty was not the sum of a number of governmental powers, but rather the will of the political community, which could not be divided without being destroyed. Prior to the Constitution, the states had been sovereign under the Articles of Confederation, and they had not given up their supreme authority when they joined the new Union. Since the Union had been created by the states, and not vice versa, it logically followed that the creator was more powerful than the created. As the federal government was not supreme, it could exercise only those powers given it by the states as embodied in the Constitution. Should it exceed these powers, the measures enacted would be unconstitutional.

After simmering for four years, the issue of nullification erupted in 1832 over a new tariff. In December 1831, President Jackson recommended to Congress a downward revision of the tariff and the elimination of the worst features of the Tariff of Abominations. Such a bill was finally pushed through in July 1832, but the new tariff was not low enough for the southern planters. Although some of the "abominations" were removed, the general level of the duties was only slightly lower. The greatest reductions were made on noncompetitive manufactured items, and the protective makeup of the tariff was hardly changed.

By mid-1832 South Carolina extremists were ready to put the nullification theory into action. Many denounced the Tariff of 1832 as unconstitutional and oppressive to the southern people. In the subsequent state election that fall the States' Rights and Unionist Parties made the tariff and nullification the chief issues, and when the States' Rights Party elected more than two-thirds of the legislature, it promptly called for a state convention. The convention met in November 1832, and by a vote of 136 to 26 the state adopted an Ordinance of Nullification, which declared the Tariffs of 1828 and 1832 null and void. After February 1, 1833, the tariffs would not be collected, and should the federal government forcibly attempt to collect them, South Carolina would secede.

Jackson met this challenge in typical fashion. He boldly proclaimed that the Constitution formed a government, not a league, and that the power of a single state to annul a federal law was "incompatible with the existence of the Union, contradicted by the letter of the Constitution, unauthorized by its spirit, inconsistent with every principle on which it was founded, and destructive to the great object for which it was formed." Nullification he called an "impractical absurdity," and concluded that "disunion by armed force is treason." This proclamation received the enthusiastic support of nationalists. On January 16, 1833, Jackson sent a message to Congress reviewing the circumstances in South Carolina and recommending measures that would enable him to cope successfully with the situation. Tension mounted in February when the Senate passed the Force Bill, which authorized Jackson to use the United States Army and Navy if necessary to enforce the federal laws.

While the Senate was still debating the Force Bill, Henry Clay (17711852) brought forward a new compromise tariff bill calling for the gradual reduction of tariff duties over the next 10 years. By 1842 the tariff was not to exceed 20 percent. South Carolinians waited anxiously to see what would happen, for it was already apparent that no southern states were coming to her aid, and she would have to fight it out alone. Calhoun, who had resigned the vice presidency after the passage of the Tariff of 1832 and had been elected immediately to the Senate, objected to the Force Bill but feared that strong opposition might hurt the chances of reconciliation presented by Clay's Compromise Tariff. He and Clay worked to push the new tariff bill through Congress, and on March 2, 1833, the same day that the Force Bill was signed into law, Jackson also signed the Compromise Tariff.

Once the Compromise Tariff was passed, South Carolina repealed its Ordinance of Nullification; however, in a last gesture of defiance the convention declared the Force Bill null and void. Jackson ignored this final face-saving move on the part of South Carolina, for the Force Bill was irrelevant if the tariff duties were being collected.

Both sides claimed victory. Nationalists declared that the president and Congress had upheld the power of the federal government, while South Carolina asserted that nullification had proved an effective method of sustaining states' rights. However, the failure of any other southern state to rally to South Carolina's defense showed that the doctrine of nullification was unpopular, and from that time forward militant southerners looked to the doctrine of secession as their best redress against economic and political grievances.

See also: Andrew Jackson, South Carolina, States' Rights, Tariff


Bancroft, Frederic. Calhoun and the South Carolina Nullification Movement. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1928.

Coit, Margaret L. John C. Calhoun. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1950.

Freehling, William W. Prelude to Civil War: The Nullification Controversy in South Carolina, 18161836. New York: Harper & Row, 1965.

Taussig, Frank W. The Tariff History of the United States. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1923.

Wiltse, Charles M. John C. Calhoun. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1949.

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