Tariff politics

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IF President Reagan is trying to find a way out of a protectionist gun fight with Congress, he should study the Tariff of 1828, which was one of those really good protectionist walls for the United States. That 19th-century tariff killed about 14 birds with one stone. For one thing, it was an act, according to one contemporary, that pertained to ``manufactures of no sort of kind, but the manufacture of a President of the United States.'' Andrew Jackson came into the White House, thanks in part to the strategies of his supporters on the 1828, election-year tariff.

The pro-Jackson maneuverers proposed an enormously high tariff in 1828, the theory being that it would please the protectionists but would also delight their enemies because it would be defeated. Jackson, a man for all factions, would be the beneficiary. However, the measure passed and was quickly dubbed the Tariff of Abominations. And while flags flew at half-mast in towns that opposed the legislation, Jackson got none of the blame and was elected President.

Afterward Jacksonian supporters tried to appease the disaffected by tinkering with the tariff. Such critics as Vice-President John C. Calhoun would not accept this ploy, and in 1832 he became the only vice-president in US history to resign and run for the Senate. Because Calhoun was no political friend (he had served as veep under the previous administration), Jackson was able to choose his own vice presidential nominee in 1832 when he ran for reelection.

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Perhaps the biggest boon of the Tariff of 1828 was the enormous income it provided the federal government. In fact, the revenue was so great that Jackson's administration by 1835 was rid of the entire national debt, thereby presenting to the world ``an unprecedented spectacle,'' according to the Secretary of the Treasury.

While the 1828 tariff wasn't perfect, President Reagan would probably like to have the problem that Jackson warned against: ``The experience of other nations admonished us to hasten the extinguishment of the public debt; but it will be in vain that we congratulated each other upon the disappearance of this evil if we do not guard against the equally great one of promoting the unnecessary accumulation of public revenue.''

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University, Washington.

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