The Nullification Crisis resulted from federal passage of two protective tariffs, prompting men like John C. Calhoun to assert state sovereignty over federal law.
The concept of nullification is most keenly demonstrated by the tariff controversy in South Carolina during the presidency of Andrew Jackson. Nullification, however, had surfaced earlier in 1798 when Thomas Jefferson attacked the Federalist Alien and Sedition Acts with the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions. The nature of the nullification debate rested on the interpretation of the Constitution and its relationship to the states. The 1832 crisis was based on two unpopular protective tariffs. Under the ideological leadership of John C. Calhoun, South Carolina nullified the federal acts and threatened to secede if coerced in any way by the central government.
The Coming of the Nullification Crisis
Prior to the crisis emanating out of South Carolina, Georgia had struggled with the federal government as well over Indian policy. Despite pro-Indian rulings by John Marshall, Georgia ignored the government and evicted the Cherokee. It should be noted that President Jackson, unlike his stance over nullification, supported Georgia and sent troops to enforce the relocation of the Native Americans to Oklahoma.
Some scholars point out that Georgia’s success in opposing the federal government might have emboldened South Carolina’s resolve in passing the November 1832 Ordinance of Nullification. It is also true, however, that Southern states did not benefit from protective tariffs. The 1820s had brought a period of economic decline as well as population growth to the region.
As larger plantations flourished with the over-production of cotton in states like Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama, the price of cotton fell. Thus, the 1828 “Tariff of Abominations” and the July 1832 tariff were seen as a direct threat to Southern prosperity. Finally, although Calhoun had supported Henry Clay’s “American System,” the South received scant benefit from federal expenditures.
The Ideological Foundation of Nullification
During the January 1830 Webster-Hayne debate, Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster refuted South Carolina Senator Hayne’s argument that the central government was a mere collection of sovereign states that had been responsible for the creation of the Constitution. Webster argued that the Constitution derived not from the states but from the people. It was the supreme law of the land.
As Chief Justice John Marshall had pointed out in numerous cases involving national supremacy, sovereignty was not concurrent, neither was the Constitution a mere “compact” among the various states. The Founding Fathers had established a working government that recognized limited states’ rights but not at the expense of national supremacy.
Andrew Jackson Responds to Nullification
In his December 10th Proclamation to the People of South Carolina, Jackson made it clear that force would be employed to stop the actions of the South Carolina nullifiers. According to Jackson, disunity was tantamount to treason. The proclamation was followed by a January 1833 request from Congress giving him the authority to end the crisis.
Congress responded with the Force Bill, authorizing a military response, yet also began the process of rewriting the tariff so that protectionism would gradually be eliminated. As historian Page Smith wrote, it was a carrot and stick approach and it worked.
South Carolina was isolated. No other Southern state offered more than token, verbal support and then only from a minority of nullifiers. South Carolina felt compelled to reverse its stance while Andrew Jackson recounted his response in a letter to a friend who was serving as US Minister to Imperial Russia. That man was James Buchanan who, in 1860, would face a similar crisis.
- Alfred H. Kelly and Winfred A. Harbison, The American Constitution: Its Origins and Development 5th Ed., (New York: W.W.Norton & Company, 1976)
- Stephen B. Oates, The Approaching Fury: Voices of the Storm, 1820-1861 (Harper/Collins, 1997)
- Page Smith, The Nation Comes of Age: A People’s History of the Ante-Bellum Years Vol. 4 (McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1981)