Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

"In Violation of the General Principles of Political Economy": Philip Pendleton Barbour and Virginias Assault on the Protective Tariff, 1816-1824

Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

"In Violation of the General Principles of Political Economy": Philip Pendleton Barbour and Virginias Assault on the Protective Tariff, 1816-1824

Article excerpt

William S. Belko is associate professor and director of the graduate program in early American studies at the University of West Florida.

Following a narrow victory in the War of 1812, the United States experienced an exuberant surge of nationalistic sentiment, manifested in various ways, from an aggressive territorial expansion to a concerted promotion of national power by the U.S. Supreme Court. President James Madison contributed to this phenomenon by proposing an extensive program of national economic imperatives, recommending to Congress in December of 1815 the creation of a national bank, federally sponsored internal improvements, and a protective tariff-a somewhat unprecedented program soon to be identified with Henry Clay and dubbed the American System. Congress quickly and positively responded, and, despite a presidential veto of an internal improvements bill in 1817, passed in 1816 a second national bank and the first protective tariff in American history. But within a year, this economic nationalism encountered a stiff reaction, spearheaded by Old Republicans, a spirited assault that served as the foundation for the political turmoil, partisan attachment, and ideological invective for the ensuing three decades. The growing opposition to the American System initially spewed less venom against the protective tariff than it did against internal improvements and a national bank, an ironic fact considering the tariff issue gradually emerged as one of the most contentious political issues during the Antebellum era, with the nullification crisis demonstrating the potential explosiveness of the subject. The most bitter and consistent attack against the American System came from Virginia, and few Virginians in Congress symbolized this more than Philip Pendleton Barbour. From the Tariff of 1816 to the Tariff of 1824, Barbour gradually took the lead in opposing the protective tariff, and, in doing so, became a pivotal progenitor of the practical and philosophical arguments the South employed to oppose the protective system.

Barbour's recognized leadership of the anti-tariff movement of the 1820s commenced, however, in a rather unpropitious manner-he voted for the Tariff of 1816. On the surface, the Virginian's support for the first protective tariff warrants little attention, considering that southern support helped the legislation pass in the first place. But the South, more than any other region of the country, harbored the most viable complaints against a protective tariff, because higher duties on imports directly and adversely affected its agricultural interests. Yet southern congressmen voted for the Tariff of 1816 for reasons that belied any support for a system of protection. During the debates over the proposed tariff legislation, for example, southerners voted regularly to lower high protective duties. Barbour proved no exception to this rule, as he voted consistently to reduce the duties on cotton and woolen manufactures and on iron. So why did many southerners, Barbour included, seemingly vote contrary to their economic interests?1

Quite simply, southerners voted for the Tariff of 1816 for reasons that outweighed their distaste for the protective system. First, with the recent slashing of direct taxes, in March of 1816, additional revenue needed to be raised, hence the necessity of higher tariff duties. Southern congressmen also understood the tariff to be temporary, with the increased duties expiring in June of 1819. Northern congressmen had also promised their southern colleagues that higher duties would only affect cotton and woolen goods and would not be extended to other items. Postwar prosperity, in addition, pervaded the South and thus a willingness to share the wealth with the Northeast influenced many southerners. On such a basis, southerners could bear the burden of protection for a time while the government raised the necessary revenue, potentially sacrificing the economic security of their region for that of the nation. …

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