John C. Calhoun’s Theory of Nullification

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John C. Calhoun

A threat of secession that galvanized the country and helped to set the stage for the coming Civil War.

In 1828 Congress passed a new tariff that dramatically increased the rates on raw goods. The “tariff of abominations,” as it was labeled in the South, provoked an outcry demanding the repeal of the new rates. One of the most powerful responses to the congressional action was penned by John C Calhoun of South Carolina. When he wrote his Southern Exposition Calhoun was serving as the Vice-President of the country but had little affection for Andrew Jackson the President.

Ordinance of Nullification

In his anonymous Exposition Calhoun laid out an argument for action to be taken by the state. He argued that the Union was a compact between sates. The states had the power to nullify a federal law that exceeded powers given to Congress in the constitution. The law could then be declared null and void in that state. Congress could repeal the law or could pass a constitutional amendment giving it the powers in question. If the amendment passed the state could accept the law or secede from the Union. The state legislature adopted the Ordinance of Nullification in 1833 and declared both tariffs null and void. In the text of the ordinance they also made clear “that we are determined to maintain this, our ordinance and Declaration, at every hazard…”

Historical Precedent

There was little new in the arguments presented by Calhoun. The same concepts of nullification, states rights, and secession were presented to the nation for the first time in the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions in 1789. In both James Madison and Thomas Jefferson put forth much the same argument Calhoun drafted but there was little action taken at the time. In the case of South Carolina nullification of laws were declared and secession was a very real possibility.

Arguments Against South Carolina

The Ordinance was a dangerous declaration in response Daniel Webster of Massachusetts argued that the Union was not a compact but rather a contract between the states entered into when the constitution was ratified. It could not be cast aside when one wished. The Supreme Court, he held, was the arbiter of such issues not the states which had been the case since Marbury v Madison (1803).

Jackson’s Response

A much stronger reply was from Andrew Jackson himself. Jackson was intent on preserving the Union and putting an end to the crisis. In his Proclamation on Nullification he argued that the Union was perpetual, there was no right to secession, adding that “disunion by armed force is treason.” Aware of the burden that the tariffs carried in the southern states he also urged Congress to act in reducing the rates. At the same time he was granted the power to collect the revenue in South Carolina by force if necessary when congress passed the Force Act in 1833.

Peaceful Resolution

The nation teetered on the brink of war but with the swift action of Congress and the reduction of rates South Carolina repealed its Ordinance of Nullification. There was a temporary restoration of peaceful interaction between the states but under the surface there burbled the tension that erupted into the Civil War. The question of perpetual Union and the right of secession would be decided in those dark days of the 1860s.

Sources:

  1. Commager, Henry Steele. Documents of American History. New York: F.S. Crofts & Co., 1946.
  2. Davidson, James West, et al. Nation of Nations: A Narrative History of the American Republic, Fourth Edition, 2001.
  3. Johnson, Thomas H. The Oxford Companion to American History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1966.