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This Day in History: John Quincy Adams signs the Tariff of Abominations

On this day in 1828, John Quincy Adams signs legislation that would come to be known as the Tariff of Abominations. The law was one of the early dominoes that fell and eventually pushed our nation toward Civil War.

Watercolor of the U.S. Capitol (1828), by John Rubens Smith

The legislation came at the end of Adams’s single term in office. He’d been elected in somewhat unusual circumstances. The Electoral College vote did not produce a majority winner; thus, the election was pushed into a secondary procedure known as the House contingent election. Adams was selected by congressmen! His opponent, Andrew Jackson, was livid.


Adams did not make life any easier for himself during his presidency. He wasn’t good at playing political games. Instead, he hoped that his “upright and pure” intentions and a “heart devoted to the welfare of our country” would carry him through the presidency.


That didn’t work out so well for him.


During his administration, Adams advocated for internal improvements such as roads, canals, a national university, and a national naval academy. He thought these improvements would spur the national economy. Of course, he needed funding, too, and it was expected that he would get the money from tariffs. Tariffs had long been a tricky business, though. Tariffs on most goods had started out at only 5 percent in 1789, but rates had been raised a few times since then. Would tariffs now be raised again?


Then, as now, some people argued that raising tariffs would be good for the country and good for the economy. Others disagreed! Southerners tended to be especially prickly about raising tariffs.


Things got worse for Adams in 1826. His father passed away. He lost control of Congress. He could not obtain sufficient appropriations for his proposed improvements. Jacksonians were gearing up for a new presidential election battle in 1828. All of these factors added up to a President that did not have enough influence in Congress to appropriately moderate a tariff bill that was making its way through the legislative process. In the meantime, one Jackson supporter, Senator Martin Van Buren, had more influence and managed to usher a protectionist bill through the Senate. Thus, the tariff that was eventually approved by Congress protected northern and western products from foreign competition, even as it raised the cost of doing business in the South.


You can see why Southerners were upset!


Adams had reservations, but he signed the bill on May 19. His decision put the nail in the coffin of his 1828 reelection campaign. The South hated the Tariff, calling it the “Tariff of Abominations.” At a public meeting in Charleston, South Carolina, protestors objected vehemently, declaring that the tariff was designed to benefit “one description of citizens at the expense of every other class” and to “enrich some States to the injury of others.” One southern legislator called the bill “a species of oppression little less than legalized pillage.”


Interestingly, even back then, events could get spun in such a way as to not exactly reflect reality. Jackson’s supporters had helped to push the hated tariff through Congress, yet somehow Southerners became convinced that Jackson would reform the tariffs if he were elected to office. They were also fearful of Adams’s internal improvement plans, thinking that Adams meant to nationalize functions that should remain local. They ended up throwing their support behind Jackson.


Jackson was elected in 1828, but he never did reform the tariff, of course. His failure to do so would later lead to the so-called Nullification Crisis. But that is a story for another day.


Primary Sources:



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