Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



Major Professor

Daniel Feller


In 1903, Edward Stanwood wrote: “The tariff has been the most persistent issue in American politics.” Unfortunately, historians have forgotten about the tariff. The Age of Jackson (1816-1860) begins and ends with tariff legislation. It has rancorous tariff debates recurring throughout the era. After the Treaty of Ghent, the infant American manufacturing establishment believed that it needed protection or European manufacturers would destroy them. Congress responded with the mildly protective tariff of 1816. This measure passed by large margins in both houses of Congress. Few realized the repercussions that this legislation would have in the next forty-five years. When manufacturers tried to raise duties in 1820, the House concurred, but the Senate tabled the bill. Four years later, Congress raised import duties. It did so again in 1828. Branded as the tariff of abominations by southerners, the tariff of 1828 and the tariff of 1832 nearly precipitated a civil war when the state of South Carolina nullified these acts. Congress averted bloodshed by passing a compromise tariff that lowered rates over ten years. With the sharpest cuts set to take place in 1842, Congress enacted the tariff of 1842. Southerners called this protective tariff a betrayal of the compromise of 1833. This victory for protectionists lasted for only four years, however. The Walker tariff of 1846 slashed duties and commenced an era of tariffs for revenue purposes only. Congress would not enact another protective tariff until after the Deep South seceded from the union. This dissertation seeks to show why the tariff is an important part of the national narrative in the antebellum period. The debates in Congress over the tariff were acrimonious. Tariff bills often passed by margins of less than five votes. Manufacturers believed that they could survive and prosper only if the federal government offered them protection. Some of these protectionists contended that they needed protection for only a short period of time. Once they had established their industry, they argued, they would adopt free trade principles. Many sectors of American society rejected these notions. Farmers regarded the tariff as an instrument that granted manufacturers a monopoly. Why should the federal government cater to one sector of society and not others, they demanded? Navigators believed that tariffs hindered the coastal trade. Strict constructionists considered a protective tariff unconstitutional. All foes of the tariff maintained that it inflated prices. The main question that this dissertation will address is why did the tariff issue become so important to Americans? This dissertation argues that the American people felt strongly about this issue. The tariff, throughout the Age of Jackson, helped to spread democracy. This issue galvanized the public and brought more Americans into the political process.

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