1849 · Sherwood Forest, Va
Shortly after becoming president in April 1842, following the untimely death of William Henry Harrison, the tariff became a thorny issue for John Tyler. A foe of high tariffs, he initially opposed and ultimately vetoed a bill proposing strong duties on foreign imports. Tyler eventually compromised with congressional leaders and did sign a weakened Tariff Bill in 1842. However, his initial opposition to the tariff was enough for Whig leaders in the U.S. House to undertake impeachment proceedings against Tyler, the first against a president in American history (the efforts ultimately stalled in the House).
The "Walker Tariff" of 1846, which reduced tariff rates by seven percent from 1842 levels, was much more to Tyler's liking, as he notes in the present letter. Tyler explains that the huge crops of southern cotton, coupled with the growing might of northern manufacturing, meant that American producers needed to look increasingly to foreign markets, and that such exports could only be achieved by lower tariffs. He writes: "The fact that under the Tariff Act of 1846 new manufactories and in considerable numbers are rising up all over the country, is proof that the day has already dawn'd in which the cotton planter may look for an immensely valuable market at his own door, and when his now 20 and shortly to be 40,000,000 are to be cloth'd out of the product of his fields, through their own industry, and that too without sensibly abridging the supplies which he can and must furnish to the foreign fabricator." Tyler foresaw a not-too-distant future in which Southern cotton and American looms and spindles would supply not only a growing American market but also allow the United States economy to supply "the millions of the world" with cotton and the textiles made from them.
Tyler opens the present letter by equating increased demand and prices for foreign "breadstuffs" to a "proportionate decline in the price of cotton," noting that higher prices for food abroad would naturally effect the price for cotton, as consumers would have to choose food over clothing. The former president argues that there is "but one remedy for the cotton planter in the contingency mentioned, and that is to multiply as far as possible the markets for his cotton." This expansion of the cotton market should be accomplished by a "free interchange with all the nations of the Earth" but first of all within "the Home market" which is "undoubtedly of the greatest importance considering the extent of our country - its shores now washed by the waters of two oceans, the rapid increase of its population, a population which duplicates in a series of 23 years, and all the wants of a refin'd and civiliz'd society in a still greater ratio, along with its almost metanatural development of power and strength." Tyler believes that the day will come when the "American market will be of vastly greater importance to the Cotton Planter than that of much of the world beside."
Tyler further argues that reduced tariffs have stimulated demand for cotton and might eventually allow the American cotton market to "go on increasing until the Home price shall regulate the foreign price" (instead of vice versa as, Tyler says, was currently the case). In addition, he claims that increased production of American cotton will buttress other markets, writing that "the great Home demand will still continue uninfluenced to any considerable degree by the price of bread stuffs, and his remuneration for his labour will be comparatively certain." Tyler argues that the promise of the cotton market is practically incalculable, and should not be unduly influenced by the government when he writes:
"We lose ourselves in an attempt to calculate the progress of American industry, skill and capital. The Philosopher in his closet may deduce the existence of a new Planet, and locate it in the heavens, and the Political economist may deduce from the past the probable advance of society in other quarters of the globe, but our progress defies calculation. The figures for today merely shadow forth the results of tomorrow. The boy is told of howling wildernesses inhabited only by wild beasts, or men more savage than they. Manhood dawns upon him and the same wilds have become a highly cultivated country abounding in the arts of civilization and refinement. The day is on us even now when our 20 millions of people are cloth'd by American Looms, and the day will arrive sooner than he can calculate when those same looms will clothe the millions of other countries. These are and must be the natural results of our progress. No new impulse from govt. is necessary to produce it. It is fortunate that it is so and that our cotton manufactories are placed on a footing no longer to be influenced by the movements at Washington."
Tyler goes on to argue against export duties on cotton as "a bounty on the producer of cotton in other countries." Any actions by the government, argues Tyler, should be designed to "preserve as far as possible the monopoly of the plant." Tyler concludes his letter with an assessment of a Candle coal mine in which he has an interest "within sixty miles of the mouth of the Ohio" and proposes going into business on the mine with Smith.
Curiously, John Tyler, who owned as many as seventy slaves, does not once mention the labor system that made growing cotton so profitable, nor does he mention the growing controversies over the "peculiar institution" in this lengthy letter. Within a dozen years, other southern leaders, also confident that cotton was king, were willing to secede from the United States and most of the manufacturing capacity that Tyler praises in this letter. The Confederate States believed that European nations, especially Great Britain and France, would support the southern cause because of their need for cotton to feed textile mills and the fashionable clothing market. Tyler initially opposed secession but eventually presided over Virginia's Secession Convention and served in the Confederate Congress until his death in 1862. Ultimately, raw cotton's world appeal was no match for the manpower and manufacturing capabilities of the Union, while the South's enslaved labor population proved a short-lived source for harvesting the one raw material that Tyler focuses on here.
Tyler wrote this letter to attorney and businessman Hamilton Smith of Louisville, Kentucky. Smith spearheaded efforts to develop the Cannelton Cotton Mill in Cannelton, Indiana, on the Ohio River sixty miles west of Louisville. When completed in 1851, the Cannelton Cotton Mill was the largest industrial building west of the Allegheny Mountains. The area was rich in cannel coal (or candle coal), a type of bituminous coal or oil shale, that provided fuel for steam engines to operate the textile mill. Smith hoped to create a western milling center to rival Lowell, Massachusetts.
An intriguing correspondence from a former President of the United States who saw cotton as the one, big, unstoppable force in the American economy in 1849. (Inventory #: WRCAM56388)