Tariff of 1846, U.S.

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The American Tariff of 1846, informally called the Walker tariff, was legislation sponsored by the Democratic party that reversed the high rates of tariffs imposed by the Whig-backed Tariff of 1842 under president John Tyler. The Walker tariff was one of the lowest tariffs in American history, and it favored the agrarian South and West against the industrial East. It was lowered even further in 1857, and stayed in effect until the Ciivl War began in 1861.

The act is named after Robert J. Walker, a Mississippi politician who served as Secretary of the Treasury under president James K. Polk. The tariff's reductions (35% to 25%) coincided with Britain's repeal of the Corn Laws earlier that year, leading to a decline in protection in both and an increase in trade.

See Tariff, U.S. history


Shortly after his election, President Polk asserted that the reduction of the high "Black Tariff" of 1842 would constitute the first of the "four great measures" that would define his administration. This proposal was intended to be the fulfillment of his campaign pledge in the "Kane Letter" on tariff policy that contributed to his victory in 1844 over Henry Clay. In 1846 Polk delivered to Congress his tariff proposal, designed by Walker Walker urged its adoption in order to increase commerce between the United States and Britain. He also predicted that a reduction in overall tariff rates would stimulate overall trade, and with it imports. The result, asserted Walker, would be a net increase in tax revenue despite a reduction in the rates.

Scully's (1988) review of manuscript collections, Treasury Department records, Congressional files, newspapers, and more than 130 petitions submitted to Congress revealed that the building of broad-based public support was an integral part of lobbying strategies. He found no evidence of formally organized interest groups solely dedicated to the purpose of influencing public policy, of the sort that were mobilized behind the wool tariff after 1861. Rather, voluntary associations created for civil purposes moved in and out of political activity. Many citizens entered into ad hoc coalitions. A majority of the coalitions that represented individual industries were not just locally based; they drew their membership from widely dispersed municipalities, congressional districts, and states. The most effective organizers of grassroots campaigns were not professional lobbying agents, but members of Congress and the executive branch.

The Democratic-controlled Congress quickly acted on Walker's recommendations. The Walker Tariff bill produced the nation's first standardized tariff by categorizing goods into distinct schedules at identified "ad valorem" (such as 15% of value) rates rather than assigning individual taxes to imports on a case-by-case basis. The bill reduced rates across the board on most major import items save luxury goods such as tobacco and alcohol.

Scott and Lake (1989) argue American tariff liberalization was intimately related to Britain's repeal of its Corn Laws. In the antebellum U.S. Northern protectionist and Southern free trade proclivities were fixed; Western grain growers held the balance of power. By allowing access to its lucrative grain market, Britain altered the economic and political incentives of Western agriculturalists and facilitated the emergence of the free trade coalition essential to the passage of the Walker Tariff.


The bill resulted in a moderate reduction in many tariff rates and was considered a success in that it stimulated trade and brought needed revenue into the U.S. Treasury, as well as improved relations with Britain that had soured over the Oregon boundary dispute. As Walker predicted, the new tariff stimulated revenue intake from $30 million annually under the Black Tariff in 1845 to almost $45 million annually by 1850. Exports to and imports from Britain rose rapidly in 1847 as both countries lowered their tariff barriers against each other.

The 1846 tariff rates initiated a fourteen-year period of relative free trade by nineteenth century standards lasting until 1860. It was passed along with a series of financial reforms proposed by Walker including the Warehousing Act of 1846.

The Walker Tariff remained in effect until the Tariff of 1857, which reduced rates further. Both were reversed in 1861 with the adoption of the Republican-backed Morrill Tariff and the opening of an age of protectionism that lasted from 1861 to 1933.

Politically there was little talk about tariffs in the run-up to the Civil War. The South's leading port by far was New Orleans. In 1858 it exported $100 million worth of cotton and other goods. But it only imported $10 million of goods that were subject to tariffs, and paid less than $3 million.[1] The other major port, Charleston, paid less. Much of that money of course was spent in the South by the federal government--for example, a fourth of the army was stationed in Texas. The South imported very little machinery from Europe; it mostly imported cotton and woolen cloth. Politically the southerners had their way with tariffs; they strongly supported the low Walker Tariff in 1847, as well as the additional reductions in the 1850s. Not until the after seven states seceded and pulled out its Senators did the Republicans manage to pass their high Morrill Tariff -- which would have brought in only an additional $2 million a year to the New Orleans customs house. No leading Confederate said tarifffs were a main reason for secession. Since 1990, however, some neo-Confederates have combined with laissez-faire economists to argue that tariffs somehow caused the war, not slavery.

See also


Primary sources

  • F.W. Taussig, ed. State Papers and Speeches on the Tariff, (1892) 385 pages online edition
  • Turney, Elaine C. Prange, and Cynthia Clark Northrup, eds. eds. Tariffs and Trade in U.S. History: An Encyclopedia (2003) vol 3. is documents

  1. DeBow's Review (Oct 1859) pp 475, 478