Walker Tariff of 1846: Definition & Summary

Instructor: Daniel Vermilya
The Walker Tariff of 1846 was a successful attempt by President James Polk to lower Federal tariff rates to help the economy and trade in Southern states. It was one of many political battles that occurred in the lead-up to the American Civil War.


Throughout American history, the United States government has funded its operations through various measures. One of those is placing a tax on imported and exported goods. These taxes are known as tariffs, and they have played an important role in American politics through the years.

1800s Tariffs

During the 1800s, many issues of national significance impacted different sections of the country in disparate ways. Tariffs were one of the main culprits for this occurrence. By the 1840s, the Northern and Southern sections of the nation had become vastly different from one another. During the late 1700s and early 1800s, many Northern states had abolished the institution of slavery, or prevented it from ever taking root in their society. As a result, the progression of the 1800s saw Northern society become increasingly industrial, with millions of new immigrants flooding in and raising both population and industrial productivity by increasing the size and ability of the work force.

Conversely, at this same time in the Southern United States, there was an ever-increasing reliance upon slave labor for economic output. Slavery became essential to Southern states as a social, economic, cultural, and political institution. As a result, while Northern industry increased, the South became increasingly reliant upon agriculture and plantation labor.

This became an economic issue between the North and South when it came to discussions of tariff policy. States in the North, having a high industrial output and significant raw materials, favored higher tariff rates that would generate more revenue for the Federal government and protect Northern industry. The Southern states, lacking a strong industrial base, favored lower tariffs for acquiring industrial goods and raw materials. Furthermore, the South's main economic output was its cotton crop, something which was of particular interest to industrial European nations such as Great Britain which needed cotton for its textile mills. High tariff rates made doing business with Great Britain more difficult for Southern merchants, thus hurting the Southern economy. This difference between the North and the South led to major political fights over tariff policies. However, it's important to note that the primary cause of these differences was the presence of slavery in the South and the lack of slavery in the North.

1844 Election

Tariffs were a major political issue in many of the presidential elections of the mid-1800s. In 1844, Democrat and Tennessee native James Polk won the Democratic Party nomination for the presidency. As a Democrat and a Southerner, Polk strongly favored lowering tariff rates to help the Southern states economically. Polk's opponent, Henry Clay, was a Whig from Kentucky. The Whig Party favored higher tariff rates so as to create more revenue for the Federal government. Clay ran for president several times in his life, and lost each one of them. Polk won the 1844 election and became the 11th President of the United States.

President James K. Polk, a proponent of the Walker Tariff of 1846

The Walker Tariff

During his one term in office, Polk accomplished several key goals. One of those was to lower tariff rates. Secretary of the Treasury Robert J. Walker put forward a plan to lower tariff rates across the board to new standard levels. Instead of each item being taxed separately, the new tariff provided flat rates for items according to their broad grouping. It lowered the standard rate from 33% to 25%, making it one of the lowest tariffs in American history.

When Polk gave the Walker Tariff plan to the Democrat-controlled Congress, it sailed through with high support. Southern Democrats were elated at the lower rates, believing they would help the South's slave-based agrarian economy. By passing the Walker Tariff of 1846, Polk achieved one of his major goals of his presidency.

Impact and Consequences

The Walker Tariff was effective in spurring Southern trade, especially with Great Britain. As a result, it also increased the tariff revenues of the federal government by nearly 15 million dollars over 5 years. While this increase in revenues was helped somewhat by increased Southern trade, it was also made possible by strong industrial growth throughout the Northern states.

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