Tariff of 1857

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The Tariff of 1857 was a major tax reduction in the United States, creating a mid-century lowpoint for tariffs. It amended the Walker Tariff of 1846 by lowering rates to around 17% on average.

The Tariff of 1857 was authored primarily by Robert Mercer Taliaferro Hunter of Virginia. The bill was offered in response to a federal budget surplus in the mid-1850s. Hunter intended to disperse this surplus through a tax cut.

Supporters of the bill came mostly from Southern and agricultural states, which tended to be export dependent and tended to support the "free trade" position. They were also joined by a handful of New England wool manufacturers. This constituency traditionally supported protectionism in the 19th century. A series of political setbacks for the protectionist movement in the early 1850s, however, prompted them to forgo protection for their own goods in exchange for reduced tariffs on their raw material imports such as Canadian wool. According to Kenneth Stampp, the bill “was possible because it did not represent a victory of one section over the other; nor did it produce a clear division between parties. Its supporters included Democrats, Republicans, and Americans; representatives of northern merchants, manufacturers, and railroad interests; and spokesmen for southern farmers and planters. Opposition came largely from two economic groups: the iron manufacturers of Pennsylvania and the wool growers of New England and the West.” [Kenneth M. Stampp, America in 1857: A Nation on the Brink 1990 p. 19. ]

Producers from other traditional protectionist constituencies such as iron, glass, and sheep farmers opposed the bill. When the Panic of 1857 struck later that year, protectionists, led by economist Henry C. Carey, blamed the downturn on the new Tariff schedule. Though economists today reject this explanation, Carey's arguments rejuvenated the protectionist movement and prompted renewed calls for a tariff increase.

The Tariff of 1857's cuts lasted only three years. In 1861, the country changed course again under the heavily protectionist Morrill Tariff.