Tallmadge, the Tariff and Slavery

In 1819, James Tallmadge, Jr., ignited the controversy in the U.S. Congress over slavery in Missouri. He proposed amendments to the Missouri statehood bill excluding slavery from the new state.

Because southern agriculture in those years relied heavily on slave labor, the practical effect of the restriction would be to limit southern emigration to the new state.

Southerners awoke and recognized it as a scheme to limit the political power of southern agriculture in the federal government. If the North gained the balance of power, they feared, it would increase the tariff rates to levels that would impoverish the South.

The ensuing acrimonious debate roiled Congress for more than two years. It ended with the Missouri Compromise that allowed slavery in Missouri, but limited it in future territories to the south of a geographic line.

James Tallmadge was the first of a long line of northern politicians with tariff-interested constituents who joined the anti-slavery crusade for tariff reasons. He is the first example in the array of evidence that political anti-slavery arose solely at the hands of tariff-interested men and then only at the precise time of intense tariff frustration.

Tallmadge was the leader in the House of Representatives of both the movement for a protective tariff on iron and of the movement for a national plan of internal improvements to be financed with tariff funds. He also moved to retain the system of internal taxes just to accommodate a tax on auctions for its protective effect. It was no coincidence that this was the same man who introduced the anti-slavery amendments to the Missouri statehood bill.

On December 29, 1817, in the House of Representatives, Tallmadge led a parade of petitions by presenting his own petition signed by citizens of New York, Connecticut and Pennsylvania "praying that additional duties may be imposed on bar iron, pig iron, and castings, imported into the United States." Iron mines just east of Tallmadge's home town of Poughkeepsie produced some of the best quality of iron known in the country at the time. Poughkeepsie had several iron works including seven iron bloomeries. These works were financially stressed at the time due to British competition and an approaching recession. Some were facing extinction. Tallmadge's constituents were desperate.

Following Tallmadge, Representative Henry Baldwin of Pennsylvania presented a petition with an identical printed text but different signatures. Baldwin was himself an iron manufacturer and represented an iron district in Pennsylvania. He was principally responsible for the tariff bill introduced in the House of Representatives two years later in 1820. They named it "the Baldwin Bill" after its most active proponent.

After Henry Baldwin, Burwell Bassett of Virginia presented yet another petition done in the same manner. Many of Bassett's petitioners were residents of Accomack County, Virginia, on the Eastern Shore. They harvested Chesapeake Bay oysters and supplied the shells as flux to the iron blast furnaces at the north end of the Bay. They were consequently interested in tariff protection for the financial health of their constituents. All three petitions were referred to the committee of Commerce and Manufactures.

The House, prodded by the petitions, considered an increase in the duties on iron. The 1816 tariff had set the duty on forged (hammered) bar iron at forty-five cents per hundredweight. Now the House bill raised that rate to one dollar per hundredweight, more than double the old rate.

Representative James Strudwick Smith of North Carolina objected to the protective tariffs. He railed against the "fat capitalists" of the "fungus establishments" who wanted it, setting a tone of enmity that was to endure for a long, long time. That opposition stood squarely in Tallmadge's way to the higher protective tariffs that his constituents so desperately wanted.

Senate Vote on the Increase in the Duty on Iron, April 17, 1818.

Every cotton state senator present voted to strike the "one dollar" duty that was so dear to the hearts of the iron men.

Now, the battle lines were clearly visible to James Tallmadge. It was the slave-owning agriculturalists arrayed in solid opposition to the iron men. The distribution of votes in the Senate starkly illustrated this opposite relation with respect to the tariff.

Cotton Prices and Tariff Rate 1871-1920

It was a giant, political tug-of-war over the tariff rate. Tallmadge's iron-manufacturing constituents, who believed their businesses were facing imminent extinction due to imported British products, had lost an important battle to the southern men who feared their own extinction under high tariff rates.

In Congress, Tallmadge faced southern opposition to his plans for Federal government spending for roads, harbors and canals. Northern men wanted these internal improvements to facilitate transportation of raw materials to and finished products from their factories. Because the increased import taxes to pay for it all would diminish southern cotton and tobacco revenue, many southerners resisted that spending.

Tallmadge led the efforts in the Fifteenth Congress to legislate a national program of internal improvements. Southern presidents, before and after the Fifteenth Congress, vetoed that legislation because they believed it unconstitutional. Tallmadge's national program of improvements died unborn in Congress, killed by the certainty of a presidential veto and the opposition of slave-state congressmen.

Tallmadge's frustration at the obstruction of his internal improvements program was part of the reason he proposed the anti-slavery scheme for Missouri. After having limited southern power, the North could then choose the president. A northern president, free of political ties to southern agriculture, would not veto internal improvements legislation. Federal funds could then flow freely to develop northern transportation.

On December 3, 1817, the Speaker of the House of Representatives appointed Tallmadge to a select committee on "roads, canals, and seminaries of learning." As he stepped onto this Congressional stage, the conflict over internal improvements was already simmering.

Earlier in the year, President James Madison, a slave-owner from the southern state of Virginia, had vetoed legislation to fund internal improvements. Called "the Bonus Bill of 1817," it would have distributed to the states the profits on national bank shares owned by the federal government. Those profits could then be used by the states for the construction of canals and improvement of watercourses.

In Madison's opinion, however, there was an insuperable problem with the bill. Congress did not have the Constitutional power to do it.

"The legislative powers vested in Congress," he observed, "are specified and enumerated in the 8th section of the first article of the Constitution." "[I]t does not appear," he explained, "that the power proposed to be exercised by the bill is among the enumerated powers." It did not, he said, fall, "by any just interpretation, within the power to make laws necessary and proper for carrying into execution those or other powers vested by the Constitution in the government of the United States."

"The power to regulate commerce among the several States," Madison argued, "cannot include a power to construct roads and canals, and to improve the navigation of water-courses, in order to facilitate, promote, and secure such a commerce, without a latitude of construction departing from the ordinary import of the terms, …."

Although Madison vetoed the bill on the very last day of his second term in office, it was not a futile act. He was succeeded by James Monroe, also from the southern state of Virginia. Monroe agreed with Madison that the Constitution did not grant the power for the expenditures on internal improvements.

On March 16, 1818, Tallmadge introduced a bill for funding the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal. That project and the subsequent debate on internal improvements illustrate the sectional enmity.

Ballard Smith, a Republican from Hanover County, Virginia, a few miles north of the state capital of Richmond, asked whether the committee "intended to report any general bill for internal improvement." He thought that they should be able to examine all the propositions for national improvement so they could compare them.

Tallmadge rose to speak for the committee. He said that they "did contemplate to submit a system of internal improvements for the consideration of the House." He had intended to give a summary of a plan that he thought "the most proper to be adopted," but illness, he said, had kept him from the debate.

The committee reported the bill for repair of the road to Louisiana because of the urgent need, he said, to maintain trade with that state to get military supplies to the southern army under General Jackson. The Battle of New Orleans was then only three years in the past-it was still fresh in the minds of the legislators. Although no war now seemed imminent, because of the recent experience, military necessity was an argument that still carried weight.

"I have no doubt," said Tallmadge, "that it has now become an imperative duty for the committee to recommend, and the country to adopt, a system of internal improvement, calculated to provide for the national defence, and which would, at the same time, promote commerce between the States, and facilitate the progress of the mail." The committee had in mind that the British had blockaded the American coasting trade during the war and that the country had suffered for want of internal transportation facilities.

"We had seen the Southern planter," said Tallmadge, "overloaded with the superabundance of his products," and unable "to carry them to market…." "[W]e had seen the manufactories of the Eastern States shut up and discontinued, and that portion of the people reduced to distress, and almost to ruin, for the want of the raw materials from the South, with which to proceed in their beneficial labors." "[W]e have," he said, "witnessed a people and an army on the Northern and Western frontier, suffering every privation, and almost naked from the want of those fabrics which the manufactories of the East would gladly have wrought from the products of the South."

"[T]o guard against like calamities in future," said Tallmadge, "the committee contemplate to recommend internal improvements on the Atlantic coasts, tending to provide for the common defence, and, by uniting Georgia to Maine, more effectually to consolidate the Union." "As a part of this system," he said, "they have this day reported a bill to aid in uniting, by a canal, the Chesapeake and the Delaware."

"[T]he select committee," said Tallmadge, "had also viewed the Columbia road as a work of great national importance, and which required provision for its completion, and strongly exemplified the inefficiency of State authority to consummate such objects, and the duty of the Union to secure its completion." Although the road lay only in the three States of Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, the road pointed towards the Western States. The military safety and commercial welfare of those western states, said Tallmadge, depended on the road.

The road, he said, "strongly exemplified that class of improvements which were intimately connected with the prosperity of the Union, and justly became objects of national legislation." These he "distinguished from transverse roads through towns and counties for local accommodation, and which properly formed a subject of local legislation and State jurisdiction."

The select committee, Tallmadge announced, intended to submit projects of internal improvement "worthy of the nation's attention." "[T]he committee would proceed as fast as this House should evince a willingness to cherish the subject," he said, "and lay aside those Constitutional scruples which had presented such serious obstacles to legislation on this subject." It was, of course, Madison's "Constitutional scruples" that he intended to "lay aside."

John Forsyth, a representative from Augusta, Georgia, destined to become President Andrew Jackson's Secretary of State, insisted that a general system of improvement was impractical. "To attempt to embrace in one bill all necessary improvements," he said, "would be to defeat every proposition of that sort, since it [is] impossible to reconcile all the jarring interests of the various sections of the Union." "The House," he said, "must, therefore, to act with effect, decide on the various propositions as presented to them, on their own merits."

The Alabama and Tennessee roads bill passed. The Chesapeake and Delaware Canal project, however, languished and no action was taken as long as Tallmadge remained in Congress. Year after year, the promoters of the canal submitted their forlorn petitions and memorials, begging Congress to appropriate money to buy the canal stock.

It was not until years later in 1825 when it was finally passed and presented to President James Monroe for his signature. Monroe signed the bill on the last day of his second term of office. His veto then would have been a futile act. John Quincy Adams, a Massachusetts Federalist politician who favored federal spending on internal improvements, had been elected president the previous November. He would take office the next day. If Monroe had vetoed the bill, Congress would immediately pass it again and submit it to Adams who would surely sign it.

The canal was finally completed and opened for traffic in 1829. The ultimate cost was 2 1/4 million dollars. Since that time, the nation has spent countless millions more, improving, widening and digging it deeper. Ultimately, in the next century, the federal government dug the canal deep enough so that no locks were required. It is today entirely a sea-level canal.

On March 14, 1818, James Tallmadge experienced the overwhelming political power of slave-state opposition to federal funding of internal improvements. The House, including Tallmadge, voted on a series of resolutions testing the sense of the House on the extent of Constitutional power to make internal improvements. The third resolution presented was:

Resolved, That Congress has power, under the Constitution, to construct roads and canals, necessary for commerce between the states: Provided, That private property be not taken for public purposes, without just compensation:"

A bare majority of free state men, including Tallmadge, believed the power existed. They were 50 in favor to 49 against. Most of the slave state men, however, believed that Congress had no such power. Only thirty-one percent of the slave state men, 21 out of 67, believed that the federal government had the power to spend its revenues on construction of roads and canals for commerce between the states. Sixty-nine percent opposed it. Southern votes swung the balance against the resolution. They defeated it by a vote of 71 yeas to 95 nays.

Smarting from this sharp defeat of the internal improvement forces under his leadership, General Tallmadge saw the slave state men as an enemy camp, bent on denying to the North the roads and canals that would enhance its industrial and commercial development.

His leadership role in the political struggle over internal improvements in the Fifteenth Congress placed him in the position and gave him the additional motive to discover antislavery as a convenient political tool to shift the balance of power to his section of the country-power to get money to fund their favored projects with money that the free market would not give.

What this Congress could not accomplish, Tallmadge hoped, his successors could accomplish in a subsequent Congress when his restriction on slavery had hobbled westward expansion of southern agriculture.

There was yet another incident that illustrated southern opposition to his plans. On December 10, 1817, The House of Representatives considered the repeal of the internal duties. The internal taxes had been used to finance the war debt. Now, however, the revenue was greatly in excess of the need for it and people demanded repeal. The internal duties were varied and unequal in their imposition. Repeal was popular.

Tallmadge, however, moved to amend the repeal bill so as to except the duties on sales at auction from the general repeal. He thought the tax on auctions operated as an additional burden on foreign products. In addition to protecting the "fair dealer," it operated, he believed, as an "encouragement to our manufactures."

William Lowndes of South Carolina, the Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, objected that, in order to maintain the tax on auctions, the whole machinery for the collection of internal duties would have to be maintained. It would make collection of the duty very expensive and inconvenient. Repeal, he said, "should be total or none."

Henry Storrs, a representative from New York supported Tallmadge for the reason that we were "deluged with goods by the foreign dealers" and the tax would tend to "embarrass the foreign merchant in his object of glutting our market with foreign supplies" and that "it operated as an encouragement to our manufactures."

Tallmadge said that retention of this duty was not his sole object. Instead, he hoped to open up debate in order to get legislation favorable to his "ultimate views." Those, presumably, looked to a much higher tax on auctions.

Congress was not about to grant the exception. Even Speaker Henry Clay, a most ardent tariff protectionist, would not support the exception. Tallmadge's motion was defeated "by a large majority."

The defeat of Tallmadge's motion is yet another situation in which Tallmadge led a movement to stifle foreign commerce and favor domestic manufacturing, only to be defeated at the hands of slave-state congressmen.

Tallmadge went on to a long career as the spokesman for tariff protection of American industry. He presided at national tariff conventions. He became president of the American Institute of the City of New York, an organization formed for the purpose of displaying and promoting domestic manufacturing with a view toward influencing the public toward Henry Clay's American System.

Upon Tallmadge's death in 1853, William Seward gave a funerary oration at the American Institute. "A statesman's claim to the gratitude of his country," said Seward, "rests on what were, or what would have been, the results of the policy he has recommended."

"If the counsels of James Tallmadge had completely prevailed," Seward confidently asserted, "then not only would American forests, mines, soil, invention, and industry, have rendered our country, now and for ever, independent of all other nations, except for what climate forbids; but then, also, no menial hand would ever have guided a plough, and no footstep of a slave would ever have been tracked on the soil of all that vast part of our national domain that stretches away from the banks of the Mississippi to the far western ocean."

Seward's audience at the American Institute, the very temple of American tariff protectionism, understood very well what he meant. If the nation had adopted Tallmadge's proposed restrictions on slavery in Missouri in 1819, tariff-obstructing southern slave agriculture could not have gained control of the representation in Congress for the new states west of the Mississippi. The northern states could then have enacted and kept in place high protective tariff and internal improvements legislation. That, Seward and the men of the American Institute believed, would have fostered the growth of American manufacturing industry, which would then receive the products of the forests, the mines and the intelligent inventors and disperse them throughout the nation by means of transportation improvements financed by the tariff. The United States would grow into a mighty nation independent of all others. This was Seward's vision for America.