Primary Resource

Speech by Nathaniel H. Claiborne to the U.S. House of Representatives (March 6, 1828)

In this speech Nathaniel Claiborne, who was appointed to the Committee of Elections in the second session of the Nineteenth Congress (1825–1827), argues against the Tariff of 1828.

Transcription from Original

Mr. Claiborne said he rose with unaffected diffidence to address the committee. He was decidedly opposed to the principles of this bill, and more so to the amendment offered by the gentleman from Vermont. His constituents would, he thought, be seriously injured by the passage of either. He would, by way of preface, state a few facts which would show the truth of this declaration. The soil of the section of country he represented, was by no means ungrateful. The climate was favorable to the cultivation of most of the articles necessary to the comfort and accommodation of man. Nevertheless, from the earliest settlement of the country to this day, the people have devoted their time and labor to the culture of tobacco, almost exclusively. It was to the sale of that article they looked for the education of their children, the payment of their debts, and the purchase of many articles from the people of the west and north west section of our country, and the purchase of various articles of merchandize of foreign and domestic character. When he mentioned those facts, it would at once be seen what a deep interest they take in this question. This circumstance urged him to participate in this debate. He feared he did not possess that elocution (call it by what name you please) which was calculated to fix and retain attention. But, said he, if I had but one pebble from a brook, I would nevertheless advance to the discussion of this interesting question. Some gentlemen suppose that we, who are opposed to this bill, are opposed to all "tariffs," but it is not so. Who is there—what intelligent citizen is opposed to a moderate, judicious, and constitutional tariff! None; no, not one. The constitution gives to the General Government great powers. It has surrendered the purse of the nation to Congress. At the moment of the surrender, the framers of the Constitution knew the magnitude of the grant. They knew that man was fond of power, seized it with avidity, and was prone to abuse it. They knew, too, that in bad times, bad men might convert the power of taxation into levers by which to raise the moral and political world from their proper places. Hence the framers of the Constitution threw around the grant of power to impose taxes, wise and salutary restrictions, on the observance of which, every thing depended. Do you wish this government to attain an enviable perpetuity? Do you wish it to stand like a rock in the ocean of time, superior to the storms of faction, and assaults of ambition? Regard those restrictions. Yes, the Constitution authorizes you to levy direct taxes—on the lands, houses, and slaves of your citizens. But, Sir, this is a power too delicate and dangerous for the government to exercise in this country, except in difficult and trying times. It can only safely be exercised in war, or in preparing for war. In such a contingency, it would be acquiesced in; nay, supported by the people. The pride of valor, and the love of country, would then sustain its exercise. The framers of the Constitution knew this, and hence they provided that the General Government, from time to time, might impose such duties on imported articles as would be sufficient to sustain the government in the exercise of its delegated powers, pay the public debts, and defend the country. In the imposition of duties on imported articles, you may go to the utmost verge of those great constitutional limits; beyond the ground is holy, and, for one, I will not occupy it. Demonstrate that additional duties on imported woollens [sic], &c. &c. are necessary to support the government, pay the national debt, and defend the country; and if other articles on which it is more prudent to lay them, cannot be found, then I shall consider myself bound to support the general system; but that is not pretended. The present revenue is not only sufficient to support the government, fortify the sea ports, and increase the navy, but to pay off the debt as fast as it becomes due. Sir, by the Constitution, you can impose duties only for revenue. Examine the Constitution, line by line, sentence by sentence, and show, if you can, a clause which authorizes duties on imported articles, for purposes other than revenue. In my opinion, such grant of power cannot be found. If it had been the intention of the framers of the Constitution to have authorized the imposition of duties for any other purpose than revenue, would they have omitted science—that science which contributes more than any thing else to the preservation of our free institutions? The provision in the Constitution which authorizes Congress to secure for a limited term of years to artists and authors the fruits of their labour, confirms me in the opinions I have expressed. Why then did they omit to give to Congress a grant to effect, if in their power, a wide spread of science? That science which paved the way to our independence, and secured our civil and religious liberties;—that diffusion of knowledge, that expansion of liberal opinion, which caused every man to estimate his own importance—to feel that he was something, and not a cipher on the muster roll of human beings—that science which has proclaimed, and now maintains the independence of South America; and, at this moment, is raising the descendants of Leonidas and Solon from the dust, to which they have been bound down for the last five hundred years by the iron hand of oppression, and is again exhibiting them on the classic fields of Greece, in all the port and attitude of freemen? I answer, and say it was not one of the purposes for which the Federal Constitution was formed. Like every thing else, the care whereof is not expressly delegated to the General Government, it is left to the States, in other words, is retained by them. I shall hereafter mention other things just as important as manufactures, which are not named in the Constitution, and of course are beyond the control of the national legislature.

Let us look back to the causes which led to the formation and adoption of the Constitution; it will throw light on this subject. When we dissolved the ties which connected us with a foreign power, we were held together by a pledge given by each State in the Union to all the others, that we would remain for ever an united people. This pledge was subsequently dignified by the name of confederation; it was predicted it would not answer the purposes for which it was intended; nevertheless it carried us through a long war, marked by suffering, misfortunes, victory, and glory, and at last secured our independence.

The war was not over before it was evident that it would be impolitic to depend on it as a bond of Union. The events of the war had learned us this lesson. Congress, under the old confederation, depended on the voluntary contributions of the States to effect their objects. The States declined or complied with requisitions made on them at their pleasure. Perhaps, it may be said, had Congress, under the old confederation, acted on the individuals of the community, instead of acting on sovereign States, the ranks of the army would have been fuller, the troops better paid, and our victories more signal. When peace came, what was the scene presented? Contracts previously entered into every day violated, debts, the price of our liberties, unpaid—an aggression on our soil, unredressed, a commerce decayed and decaying—and a credit annihilated, all admonished us of the necessity of having a government better calculated to preserve the Union, pay the public debts, establish credit, ensure domestic tranquility, and transmit to posterity the blessings of free government. This view is justified by the Constitution itself. It conformed to the will of the people of that day, like a faithful mirror; it reflected back on the people their opinions. The lights furnished by history aid us in the interpretations of the Constitution, and authorize us to say, that all branches of human industry were left to the protection of the States, except when otherwise expressly provided for. (Mr. C. now enumerated the delegated powers in the constitution, which is here omitted, and then proceeded.) The power is given by express words—to make all laws necessary and proper to carry into execution the delegated powers and grants. In construing grants, the correct jurist regards the letter, and does not hunt after the intention, the quo animo: that ignis fatuus which, like atmospheric vapour, pursues and evades, and alternately imparts vitality and disease. What then do we complain of? We say this bill is in opposition to the Constitution at the same time that it is against the known will of a large number of the American people, that it seeks to establish the principle that Congress at discretion may select particular branches of human labor, and promote them to the prejudice of all other branches of labor. Against this, Mr. C. said he entered his protest; and notwithstanding the patience with which he was now heard, he feared the bill would pass, and that a principle would be considered as settled, which would produce the worst consequences. The principle for which he contended, was, that, human labor, genius, industry, enterprize, and science, were all free in this land, subject to no control, but the individual discretion of each member of the community; yes, the minds and pursuits of men so far as they did not interfere with the harmony of society, the rules of polished life, and the laws of the country, were as free as the atmosphere by which we are surrounded. This happy state of things he hoped, would not be unsettled by a system of legislation that he hesitated not again to say would produce the worst consequences. You may disguise matters as you may; he considered this was a struggle to give ascendency and advantage to particular occupations in life, to the prejudice of others. The gentleman from Maine, (Mr. Anderson) had shown, if this bill pass, the fair prospects of very many in his State would be overthrown—all those engaged in the molasses trade—the timber getting, and the fisheries, to the amount of some thousands, would be suddenly deprived of employments; his views were so satisfactory, and I believe unanswerable, that I shall not pretend again to exhibit them. Mr. C. said the question had been frequently discussed, which contributed most to the permanent prosperity of a nation—its agriculture its commerce, or its manufactures. He should not enter into this subject at large. He had made up his opinion, and, on a fit occasion, he felt no disposition to withhold it. This much would he say, that that country which was the most agricultural, would become the most commercial, and that agriculture and commerce united, would give birth to all these manufactories that were powerfully auxiliary to the navigation of the seas, or the cultivation of the earth, if all the occupations to which the labour of man could be devoted, that of cultivating the earth promised the longest and happiest life.

When he saw great masses of the community quitting the cultivation of the earth to glean a living on the seas, or within the walls of a sickly manufacturing establishment, his mind was hurried into the opinion that the earth was burdened with a population beyond its ability to support, no matter how great the labor devoted to its cultivation. If this state of things in the occupations of men is brought about when the earth is able to maintain them, some writers have imagined it is produced by the mal-administration of the government. The cultivation of the earth is the primitive and favorite pursuit of man.

If there be a chosen race of men, may we not say ‘tis the farmers, planters, and agriculturalists. Among them you rarely see the shivering pangs of want; to them ambition never yet turned in pursuit of fit materials for civil strife and political volcanoes. In them you behold the votaries of truth, and disciples of liberty, ever ready to show that devotion to the country, which is due to a just government and wise system of laws. When the population has advanced to that point, that the soil will not maintain it, the eagle-eyed sagacity of the citizen will open to him the road to such employments as will best maintain him. There will be no necessity for the Government to resort to a hot-bed system of legislation, to force into premature existence a number of sickly manufacturing establishments, that will want constant aid from the Government. When the population advances to that point, Government has only to afford protection to all. Secure to every man, by an even handed justice, the fruits of his labor, whether that labor is devoted to the cultivation of the earth, the navigation of the seas, or the labors of the loom, anvil, or hammer. Need I go further than our own country, for a happy illustration of the results flowing from a system of Government, founded on the mild philosophical principle I here advocate? Under their influence, we have, from small beginnings, grown up into a great people—worthy the respect of the world. Sir, we must become a great agricultural, commercial, and manufacturing people. We must become, I say, a great agricultural people—we have a sufficiency of arable land, for the accommodation of the people of the present day. Nay, more, for the accommodation of our probable population, for five hundred years to come.

Here Mr. C., spoke at some length of the variety of climates and soils, and then continued, thus:

We must be a commercial people. The number, bulk, and amazing value of our surplus agricultural products beyond—far beyond our wants, and indispensable to the accommodation of man, in every region of the globe—our extensive sea-coast—our harbors, safe and commodious—our rivers, bold, numerous and navigable—making from the ocean at convenient distances, into the very centre of our country, invite, allure, constrain us to the pursuits of trade, with every people, to the utmost borders of civilization.

After supplying ourselves, we annually send to market, in foreign countries, 250 millions of pounds of cotton—from eighty to one hundred and thirty thousand hogsheads of tobacco—our exportations of wheat and other bread stuffs are limited to the demand which exists in the countries with whom we have the most extensive commercial connexions [sic], not to mention our naval stores, flax-seed, animal provisions, and many other articles, too tedious to enumerate, altogether requiring a tonnage as extensive as that of any other country we are acquainted with, to convey the surplus produce of the land to a foreign market.

Sir, your exports of raw materials may be safely estimated at forty millions of dollars, annually. Are you disposed to lessen, to destroy these exports? Are you disposed to annihilate your shipping interests—your navigation? The nursery of your hardy seamen—seamen bred among fogs and tempests, who, in peace, deck you with wealth, and in war, crown your standards with laurels, that will bloom green, for ever? Reflect on the danger of changing, suddenly, the pursuits of a whole people. I commend gentlemen for their firmness, (I know their motives are patriotic.) They advance, with the directness of the arrow, to their object. They occupy dangerous ground. Its solidity depends on distant, hazardous, and, in my humble opinion, eventful speculation. If we must become a manufacturing people, we should attempt it by slow and almost imperceptible degrees.

This incessant augmentation of duties on imported articles to favor manufactures, is a dangerous procedure. The politician advances to his subject with great circumspection, and by prudent and wise retreat, he is not only frequently enabled to regain his ground, but go beyond the triumph he at first meditated. If, then, we must be a manufacturing people, let it be by a slow process. Where do we get our examples to follow? Not from Genoa and Venice. They sprung, as it were, from the sea; they were destitute of territory to cultivate; they could not say as we do, with reference to our soil, Locus est e pluribus umbris. Necessity made them merchants and manufacturers. How long did Great Britain exist as a nation, before she soared to unrivalled excellence in commerce and manufactures? I answer, until her population advanced to that point that the soil could not maintain it; then her manufactures and commerce flourished. The progress we have made is, indeed, wonderful. Be patient; an improvident step might be productive of inconceivable mischief. Do we expect to attain, in a moment, that which in older countries has been more than equal to the labour of ages? Can you abolish the woollen [sic], molasses, and iron trade at a blow, and turn some twenty thousand persons engaged therein to other pursuits, without serious mischief? Our Legislature has been reproached with stepping beyond the age we live in. A wise legislation looks to the present moment, as well as to futurity. As it lays the foundation for bettering the condition of the people of the present day, it paves the way to better the condition of posterity. If manufactures are necessary to our independence, they will grow under existing circumstances.

Duties have long since been imposed on all articles manufactured in our country. Not, sir, I believe specially to protect the article, but to raise revenue to support the Government. Woollens from abroad now pay 33 percent. duty, add cost of freight and other charges, it makes forty per cent. in favor of the manufactures. If, under such auspices they languish, you can sustain them only by oppressive and burdensome taxes. Iron, also, is protected already by a heavy duty; why increase it? But little is now imported, only enough to prevent its getting up to an exorbitant price. Our population, at this time, is said to amount to twelve millions. Upon the most moderate calculation it requires 45 millions of dollars worth of woolens to supply the people at large. The price of those made in the factories and imported from abroad, is enhanced to the amount of the duty. If this amendment passes, it is equivalent to a tax nearly equal to the present revenue of the United States. An argument, (in memorials,) urged in favor of this bill, is, that Great Britain takes nothing from the people north of the Potomac of agricultural products, not to the amount of five hundred dollars annually, why make this statement? The exports north of the Potomac are near 7 millions a year, independent of imported articles re-exported. But is this any argument why we should have our prospects to the South blighted? You pass this bill; may not some of the nations of the earth play the same game on you, and prohibit some one of your great staples, on the cultivation of which, thousands and tens of thousands of your citizens are engaged, and which requires so much tonnage to take it to market? They may. The vast and valuable products of the South, are just as valuable to the North as they are to the South. Northern ships and northern seamen take them to market. Northern merchants sell them in foreign countries for money, or exchange them for goods, goods which they sell to Southern men at 120 per ct. advance on the sterling cost. I do not complain of this. If we to the South after all those operations, get some money for our produce, is it left without visitation? No. Two millions of it goes annually to the West and North-West for live stock, and some of the balance passes to the North for cassinetts and woollenetts, and various other goods. Sir, I believe our products to the South are as valuable to the North and West, as they are to the South, and if the state of things can be brought about at which this bill squints, it will prejudice us, not benefit the North and cut off from the West the best trade they every yet had. Sir, if the wish of the nation is to pass this bill, be it so; we must submit to the will of the majority. We to the South must abandon our tobacco; raise every thing we can at home, give up the foreign trade, buy no more live stock from the West, curtail our consumption of foreign articles. We, too, have water power, can raise the raw material, and can manufacture. We must accommodate ourselves to this new epoch in our history. We will not despair; we have the means of comfort, and support. We can raise both cotton and wool beyond our wants.

The history of the tariff in this country deserves some notice. There have been four revisals: in 1789, 1816, 1820, 1824. These have invariably been effected by compromise. To break in so frequently on the system, and extend the duties, produces jealousy, dissatisfaction, and strife. It keeps the price of labor and property constantly fluctuating. It unhinges the confidence of the people in your laws, and it disorders the circulating medium of the country. This incessant advance in duties entices people to embark in manufacturing establishments, with an impression that the government will sustain them at all events, and make their labor productive. The course pursued by Congress in 1824 has led to this effort to increase the duties. It will be remembered that that enterprising State, now the most extensively engaged in the woollen manufactures, was then opposed to increased duties on foreign woollens. If I am rightly informed, but a small minority of their representatives here voted for the bill of 1824. That State, I am told, is now at the opposite point, and for greater increase. Sir, your legislation seduces your citizens to invest time and money in those establishments; and unless you take a firm stand, you must end in the Chinese system of exclusion. In 1824, the vote of the Massachusetts delegation encouraged a belief that the manufactures there, were then prosperous; the increased duties laid that year seduced very many to invest their capital in woollen manufactures. Many entered into the business, no doubt, with borrowed capital. What followed? That which was to be apprehended; competition was encountered at home, and from abroad. The profits, at first large, are reduced, and now comes the application for further protection; and no doubt, in my mind, it will be continued until it works a total exclusion. I say total exclusion. Think you that you can constrain the nations of the earth to buy your produce exclusively with money? China has heretofore done so. It is said, by a Roman writer, that the East India trade was the gulf into which flowed the wealth of the world, from the first dawnings of civilization to his time; and I say, it continues, in a measure, so to this day. But if their wealth in the precious metals has increased—in science, arts and morals they yet rank among the half civilized nations of the earth, and we shall hardly take them for our models. This system of exclusion I can never agree to; a mutual exchange of commodities, or free commerce, makes the most distant people friends, and converts into a community of brothers. It is said the manufacturers employ labour, capital, and furnish a market for the surplus agricultural products, and on this principle they should be sustained. We have imposed already a heavy tax on the people, which operates in their favor, a tax more than equivalent to the market they furnish for agricultural products. But why look only to the manufacturers? Do not other branches of industry employ capital, labour, and furnish a market for agricultural products? I say they do. The merchants, farmers, mechanics, all classes of the community, may have the same thing said of them with more or less truth, before you adopt this bill or the amendment, ‘tis right to inquire into the productiveness of all branches of labor in the country. I believe if the woollen manufactories realize any thing, they are doing much better than the most of the farmers or planters; they are doing better than the tobacco raiser; his profits, in ninety-nine instances out of an hundred, it is believed do not amout to one per cent clear of all expense. It is impolitic at all times for the government to interfere with the industry, labor, and enterprize of the citizen. If you undertake to control it, you are under a moral obligation to sustain it, when it flows in unprofitable channels. Is not this true? If you seduce your citizens by premiums into particular pursuits, can you withdraw those premiums without a breach of faith? You cannot. Indeed I have long been persuaded that much legislation on the tariff was prejudicial to the community. Let your laws, on this subject, be few; your citizens will understand them, and the children will learn and obey them. The body politic may be compared to an individual: if a perpetual change of regimen will destroy an individual, improvident and repeated changes in the law will disorder the body politic. The duties of the government are great and arduous—but fewer in number than some may be disposed to imagine. Solon, on being asked, what was the best government, answered, that which considered an injury to the least of its citizens an insult on the community; no aphorism was ever more valuable. It inculcates the duty of the government, not only to the individual citizen, but to the community. It enforces the obligation to ensure personal security; property, life, liberty, and reputation, and inculcates the invaluable doctrine for which I contend, that genius, enterprize, industry, are all free, subject to the control of individual discretion.

This, sir, is my doctrine. Let the people encourage manufactures as much as they please—as circumstances shew they are necessary—manufactures are the creatures of necessity—the South, the North, East, and West will betake to them when indispensable. What I complain of, is this, that our laws oppress other branches of industry to sustain them. I hold it to be good policy to let labor, commerce, and enterprize, alone. Say to the citizen, make your living by tilling the earth, navigating the sea, or manufacturing, as you please, the government will guarantee to you the enjoyment of the fruits of your labor from molestation. And to the merchant and farmer, I would say, dispose of your produce where you can get the best price, and buy where you can get the article you want, the cheapest. When a planter sells a hogshead of tobacco, or a barrel of flour, does he stop to inquire whether the buyer be Jew or Gentile? No; the question is, what will you give? And in like manner, does a labourer want a coat, his inquiry is, who sells the best cloth and on the cheapest terms? Yes, let them remain in statu quo for a few years. Husband your resources, encourage exports, pay off your national debt; that debt that does not add a feather to your wealth, but produces disparity in the situation of your citizens. It was contracted to build up your liberties: discharge it, and, with the blessings of God, your liberties will remain unimpaired forever. The national debt discharged, you become strong beyond conception. If, hereafter, you are involved in war, you may borrow to any amount you may want. The world will confide in your firmness and integrity.

What nation every exhibited so sublime a spectacle, as the United States will then exhibit, having discharged a national debt of $127,000,000? Some gentleman feel little anxiety to pay off the national debt. The policy of leaving it over for posterity has been hinted at; for myself, I am for paying it.

The debt paid, you are asked what will you do with the surplus millions that will flow into the treasury? The gentleman who asked the question, could readily answer it. He possibly would apply it to the Cumberland Road and Ohio Canal; but I would leave internal improvements to the States. Ten millions of dollars deducted from the duties or taxes and left with the people, would benefit the people of the present day and all our posterity. How many permanent buildings would it put up? How many fields would it enclose with stone walls? How many acres would it fertilize with clover? It would add to the aggregate of innocent enjoyments, taste to our habitations, and enlarge the theatre of manufacturing enterprize. Yes, I say reduce the taxes as soon the national debt is paid. I will not, by my vote, endanger the exports or the imports. I will look at the condition of the whole country. Every where we see the cloud of distress. In vain we behold the golden coloured harvest—the canvass whitening every sea, and manufactures approximating to perfection. In vain science and enterprize draws wealth alike from the bowels of the earth, and the bosom of the great deep; in vain the powers of steam have been unfolded, and the elements of heaven hitched to the car of human industry to quadruple the products of the labours of man. The predictions of heaven must be fulfilled—unfortunate man must toil, and with all the advantages of modern improvements, his pecuniary condition is but little bettered. Listen to the complaints of the people, and see how well the observations I make are justified. The manufacturer tells you his is a losing business, notwithstanding your generous protection. The merchant says, my profits are small, and precarious as an ocean's billow, that the trade is burdened as much as it can bear, that an additional feather will sink it perhaps forever. The farmer says the price of his produce is so low, that he does not realize one per cent. on his whole capital; he complains of the taxes, he tells you five cents on each pound of coffee he uses, twenty cents on each bushel of salt, and thirty-three per cent. on the woollens he buys, are severe taxes. Very many farmers will tell you how much tax they pay; some, in the county I live in, pay $200, and many from twenty to fifty dollars. When you talk of additional duties, they ask what is done with the millions they have already paid. I wish I could answer the question to the satisfaction of all. When you tell them (the farmers) that the capital employed in commerce and agriculture is redundant, they answer you with vivacity and truth, if that be the case, the overplus will be invested in manufactures, or something else, without the aid of legislation. (Mr. C. here recapitulated the conclusions in the foregoing argument, and then concluded.) If I have said any thing offensive, I am not conscious of it. I have no narrow, no illiberal prejudices—the whole soil of the United States is sacred in my eyes, like the spirit where I was born, (in the Ancient Dominion,) and shall ever rejoice in the prosperity of all parts of this Union—endeared to me as it is by the sufferings and misfortunes and triumphs of our forefathers, whose united efforts achieved its independence from a foreign thraldom.