Nullification Crisis

The Era of the Common man stood as a high mark in the fight for state’s rights. Jackson, who was strongly against an over powered central government felt that efforts should be taken to reduce the federal government to benefit the states. However, Jackson also felt that nothing was more important than maintaining the stability of the union. While many people supported Jackson, other states, especially those affected by the tariff of abominations, believed that the states had the power to over turn unconstitutional rulings. This led to one of the most potentially dangerous times in America, the Crisis of Nullification.

The infamous “Tariff of Abominations” was a black spot in the eyes of the southern states and the cause of most of their rivalry with the north. There was significant backing behind the south’s outrage. The tariff’s actions stagnated the cotton and agricultural economy and made trade, both interstate and national, difficult. In addition, the land used for farming in most southern states was beginning to failing in crop production and many felt that action had to be taken to stop the tariff. The Carolinas were the strongest advocates against the tariff and they went as far as to having a convention on whether to secede from the union.

John Calhoun, the vice president of Jackson, was a native of South Carolina and felt sympathy with his fellow men. However, instead of promoting separation, he suggested that they fight for the state power to nullify any law that the states felt unconstitutional. This revolutionary idea, intended never to actually be used, existed to put pressure on congress to pass only the most necessary and vital laws.

In 1830, a debate broke out over a policy on the prevention of land being purchased in the west. Normally this would not have been such a grate issue, but both Daniel Webster, a senator from Massachusetts, and Robert Hayne, a South Carolina Senator, used the argument brought up by Thomas Benton, which claimed that the proposal only aided the tyrannical Northeast, to win power for their own section. Webster used his speeches in the debate to attack not only Hayne, but also Calhoun as well claiming that the union, above all things, was the most important.

Clearly, by the time of Jackson’s reelection it was evident that he and Calhoun stood very separate on the topic of nullification. Many states, especially the most militant, South Carolina, were moving towards secession, but Calhoun tried to promote nullification instead. To protect the stability of the union, Jackson had congress pass the Force Bill, which gave the president the right to use the military to enforce a law. Jackson then marched several troops into Charleston and surrounded the ports with naval ships. The quickly deterred the idea of secession, but in one last symbolic action, the states nullified the Force Bill.

As one can see, the idea of nullification was dangerous. If allowed states could easily destroy the central government and eventually led to the type of secession that the Carolinas moved for. Had it not been for Jackson’s desire for a stable union, the United States might have had a civil war. However, the strong hatred towards the federal government that many state advocates felt still remained alive.

Note: This is an original work and should be cited if used.

The idea of nullification was a response to the Tariff of Abominations (or the Tariff of 1828) led by vice-president John C. Calhoun. Under Calhoun's leadership the South had dug a hole, fallen into it, and pulled the dirt in over itself. Here in the next few days, I will explore in detail exactly how this issue was dealt with and how it was "resolved".

Table of Contents

Calhoun's Theory
The Webster - Hayne Debate
The Rift With Calhoun
The South Carolina Ordinance
Jackson's Firm Response
Clay's Compromise


The Nullification Crisis of 1833 could very well have led to our first out and out civil war. John C. Calhoun, as early as the 1830's, was claiming that there was a unified Northern majority that grows larger and larger every day. (He was right, 30 years later, Lincoln would not need a single slave state to win the presidency.)

The 'Tariff of Abominations' that was created during the John Quincy Adams administration in 1828 was horiffically high. In 1828, before Jackson assumed the office of president (in 1829), the Tariff was passed. It became the only federal tax in the nation, a revenue stream ten times that of Western land sales.

Worldwide prices of South Carolina's main export, cotton, were in sharp decline by the late 1820's to early 1830's, and the Tariff hurt this industry even more. Vice President John C. Calhoun (who distanced himself from President J. Q. Adams from the get-go) rallied the general opinion of the state that the Tariff was way too high. A group of South Carolina politicians assembled by him drafted a statement outlining a doctrine of nullification. It cited the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, and claimed that tariffs should be used only to raise revenue, and that it was wrong to implement them as an instrument to benefit specific industries, despite the fact that the Tariff was the single largest generator of revenue for the federal government, it was implemented to stir and protect manufacturing in New England, and it was did so magnificently, of course this didn't help the people paying the Tariff at all. However, this doctrine of nullification was only a resolution. It was not an action of South Carolina so much as a threat.

President Andrew Jackson ignored the statement in public, because he believed that the Union should survive and that it was more or less a hollow threat. He virtually deprived his Vice President, (yep, still good old Calhoun) of power and did not appoint any South Carolinians to offices in his control. (Being one who believed in Rotation of office.)

In 1832, Calhoun decided the whole Vice President thing looked good on his stationary but wasn't good for much else. He resigned and was quickly elected by the South Carolina legislature to the U.S. Senate. In 1832 the congress approved of modifications to the Tariff (of course, it couldn't be too greatly modified, being the only federal tax and largest stream of revenue for the government). South Carolina felt the Tariff should have been modified down much more.

So South Carolina decided to elect a special convention for discussion of their Tariff situation. It was a special convention because theoretically actions regarding the Constitution on such matters as nullification (and secession) must be done by convention since that is how the constitution was originally ratified. The convention nullified the Tariff and declared it null and void as of Febuary 1st, 1833; it was November 1832 at the time, they were attempting to elicit something of a response.

So we now have a Constitutional Crisis.

President Jackson opted to lay his kings on the table and sent military ships into Charleston Harbor and threatened to invade the state. He got a bill called the Force Bill pushed through Congress which stated that the South Carolina stance was treason and that military action was permitted for enforcing the collection of tariffs. However, on the same day Congress passed the force bill, Henry Clay rallied support for a concession to South Carolina that would gradually reduce the Tariff back to the levels of 1816, when the first protective Tariff was created. Far below the Tariff of Abominations. Both of these bills were passed on March 1st, 1833.

Deprived of a reason to fight a civil war over something that they had now been given, the cpecial convention was reconveined. They repealed their nullification of the Tariff and then nullified the Force Bill. A symbolic gesture since repealing the nullification of the tariff deprived the Force Bill of a use.

Both sides could (and did) claim victory in the matter, however the implied (well, more than implied) threat behind nullification, secession, had to do with more than just tariffs on cotton. At the heart of the matter was the powers of the Federal Government over the states and what rights a state had. These issues of course would not be resolved until John C. Calhoun's prophetic warning about a Growing and Angry Northern Majority led to a not so peacefully resolved conflict culminating in The Civil War.

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