The Tariff of Abominations

Painted Portrait Of Martin Van Buren
Martin Van Buren.

Both President John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay were of the mindset that much could be accomplished in developing the American economy with the help of the government. Martin Van Buren had different ideas, however.


Clay envisioned a program for the country he called “the American System,” which was a systemization “of the Republican nationalism that had found expression in” President James Madison’s message to Congress following the War of 1812. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 270 quoting Stephen Aron, How the West Was Lost (Baltimore, 1996), 134. Clay felt that the government, by levying protective tariffs, could foster the development of American enterprises that would otherwise struggle against foreign competition. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 271. This program was principally directed against European, and British, “commercial hegemony, not against sister republics of the New World.” Id. citing Robert Remini, Henry Clay: Statesman for the Union (New York, 1991), 174-75.

In 1824, Clay succeeded in having the tariff rates increased from 20 to 35 percent. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 272. The protective tariff “raised the price of textiles and thus diminished the demand for southern cotton at the same time as it increased the cost of maintaining slaves.” Id. at 273. While the cotton planters of the South were morally wrong about slavery, “they were economically right to complaint that the tariff did not serve their interest.” Id. citing Knick Harley, “The Antebellum American Tariff,” (1992): 375-400.

Only three “islands of protectionist sentiment remained in the South: the sugarcane growers of Louisiana, Clay’s hemp growers in Kentucky and Missouri, and the Appalachian valleys of eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina, where the predominantly nonslaveholding population continued to hope for industrial development of their natural resources and water power.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 273.

Martin Van Buren worried about the potential for widespread support of a tariff increase and realized that he needed to stop Clay’s efforts, which was part of Van Buren’s wider effort to prevent the re-election of President Adams. Van Buren, working with Silas Wright of New York and James Buchanan of Pennsylvania reshaped the proposed tariff to “add benefits for pivotal regions” that Andrew Jackson would need to carry in the Election of 1828, which was quickly approaching. Id. at 274. Van Buren and his team entirely disregarded the areas not in contention: “New England (sure to go for Adams) and the cotton South (sure to go for Jackson).” Id. The revised bill proposed massively increased tariffs for “molasses, hemp, and iron, to the disadvantage of New England distillers, ropemakers, and shipbuilders, not to mention consumers.” Id.

The resulting bill was deemed the Tariff of Abominations, and John Randolph remarked that it “had been designed to promote not the manufacture of broadcloths and bed blankets but the manufacture of a president.” Id. Ultimately, the bill passed with some modifications mitigating the harshness on New Englanders, however, the damage was done. See id. Van Buren achieved his goal of “allowing Jacksonians in the middle states to board the tariff bandwagon,” and despite Southerners feeling bitter, they had no option but to support Jackson, as President Adams was certainly the greater of two evils. See id.

Van Buren, a deft and clever politician, had shown that government intervention in the economic development of the country was not always for good, like Clay and President Adams had hoped. See id. Van Buren showed that intervention could be used for political advantage and for posturing a party and a candidate ahead of an election.

While politics always has an undercurrent of cynicism, Van Buren was introducing another layer to that cynicism. The Tariff of Abominations was purely a political tool for Van Buren to ensure that he furthered his own political career by getting Jackson elected in a shrewd manner. Van Buren, known as the Little Magician, had effectively outmaneuvered his opponents, Clay and President Adams, using their tactics against them and simultaneously shaping public opinion in an advantageous way for the Election of 1828.

President Adams and Clay, determined to develop and strengthen the American economy, likely did not expect such a maneuver from Van Buren. Their innocent, good-natured objectives were being impeded and ultimately used against them. Van Buren, already by 1828, had shown that his political skill and agility would prove to be a handful for his adversaries, as he ushered Jackson into the Election of 1828, an election he would win.

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