Nullification Crisis – America on the Brink of Civil War, 1832-33

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John C. Calhoun

America came close to civil war in 1832-1833 when South Carolina nullified tariff legislation. Both the U.S. and South Carolina prepared for battle.

In the fall of 1832, a South Carolina convention nullified or rejected the high “Tariff of Abominations” of 1828 and its revision in 1832 and forbade the collection of duties within its borders effective February 1, 1833. They were guided by the states’ rights philosophy of soon-to-be ex-vice president and soon-to-be South Carolina senator John C. Calhoun, But President Andrew Jackson was equally determined to execute federal law and preserve the union. The smell of civil war was in the air.

Andrew Jackson and Joel Poinsett

Even before the Nullifiers’ convention, after learning the results of South Carolina’s election, Jackson directed Secretary of War Lewis Cass to order the commanders of the forts in Charleston to defend them to the last. Later, Jackson ordered 5,000 stand of muskets to Castle Pinckney, dispatched two warships to patrol the coast, and requested three divisions of artillery. “We must be prepared to act with promptness and crush the monster in its cradle before it matures to manhood,” Jackson wrote Cass.

South Carolina governor Robert Hayne was also busy preparing for impending battle. He appointed a new military aide-de-camp responsible for granting and raising volunteer companies. Hayne issue secret orders to form a corps of “mounted minute men” that would ride to any point the governor deemed an emergency. Joel Poinsett wrote to Jackson, “The Nullifiers are extremely active…they drill and exercise their men without intermission.”

Poinsett, former minister to Mexico and Charleston resident, was Jackson’s eyes and ears in South Carolina. He was nervous when he reported to Jackson that the union had friends in South Carolina but they were outnumbered and needed encouragement. Poinsett also reported that the two parties of Nullifiers- those bent on secession and those looking to gain political ground- wanted the federal government to “commit some act of violence, which will enlist the sympathies of the bordering states.”

John Floyd

The southern states joining South Carolina was a concern for Jackson. All of the south hated the protective tariff and were weighing Nullification. Alabama congressman Dixon Hall Lewis thought Calhoun was on the right track. Poinsett revealed that “revolutionists in North Carolina and especially Georgia” were offering help to the Nullifiers. Virginia officially sent a delegation to Charleston to condole with the Nullifiers.

Virginia’s governor, John Floyd, was truculent in his support for South Carolina. Floyd stated that if Jackson used force, “I will oppose him with a military force. I nor my country will be enslaved without a struggle.” Jackson responded, “If the governor of Virginia should have the folly to attempt to prevent the militia from marching through his state to put the faction in South Carolina down…I would arrest him at the head of his troops.” By the end of January 1833, the southern states backed off on South Carolina’s Nullification.

Compromise Tariff and Force Bills

The reason was Jackson’s tough stance. His Nullification Proclamation warned that disunion was treason and he looked to back it up legislatively by sponsoring the Force Bill. It authorized the president to use federal forces and state militias to execute federal laws and move the collection of federal duties to ships or temporary customs houses at Fort Moultrie and Castle Pinckney in Charleston Harbor. If the bill passed, Senator Calhoun threatened, “it will be resisted at every hazard- even that of death itself.”

When the Nullifiers’ February 1st deadline came, cooler heads prevailed. Calhoun urged his state to wait and see what the federal government would do. Jackson, meanwhile, was encouraging the passage of a compromise tariff bill. He was concerned, however, that the “eastern states may…secede or nullify if the tariff is reduced.” Ironically, Jackson’s nemesis, Henry Clay, orchestrated a bill that gradually lowered tariffs over the next decade.

Both the Compromise Tariff and Force bills were passed, then signed by Jackson. South Carolina rescinded their Nullification ordinance, but meaninglessly nullified the Force Bill. The Nullification Crisis was only a preview of what the country would experience thirty years later with full blown civil war. Jackson foresaw it, “the tariff was only the pretext, and disunion and southern confederacy the real object. The next pretext will be the negro, or slavery question.”

Sources:

  1. Brands, H.W., Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times, Doubleday: New York, 2005.
  2. Meacham, Jon, American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, Random House: New York, 2008.