The doctrine of nullification allows a state to invalidate, that is, to void, for its own territory any federal law deemed unconstitutional by that state. Supporters of the doctrine generally view it as a major political tool against tyranny by the central government over the state governments and the people, while to its opponents it is threatening to the stability of the country.
Among the greatest impacts that this doctrine has ever had on the United States – besides 1798 and 1799 when the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions were passed by their respective legislatures in response to the federal government’s enactment of the Alien and Sedition Acts calling for the two states’ not abiding by them – was during the presidency of Andrew Jackson. Historians refer to this historic, political, social and economic issue as the Nullification Crisis.
That crisis stemmed from the enactment of a number of tariffs for economic protective purposes – inspired by a strong protective movement in the country with strongholds in Kentucky, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania – against the British competition since the War of 1812 (Freehing 2007, 255; Taussig 2003, 44). The Tariff of 1828, also known as the Tariff of Abominations, authored by Representative Silas Wright, Jr., a Democrat from New York, and the Tariff of 1832 had the main impact on the creation of the Nullification Crisis in South Carolina in 1832. The Tariff of 1828 taxed imports – among which corn, cotton which was taxed at 40 percent and was not King yet, distilled spirits, flax, hemp, molasses, wheat and wool – which harmed the South, and South Carolina in particular, based on the its negative impact on U.S. exports, while the Tariff of 1832 somewhat lowered it tariff rates but retained its cloth and iron rates (Remini 1958, 909; Taussig 2003, 44-47; Tax Analysts).
That negative impact was reasoned in the 40 Bale Theory, introduced by Representative George McDuffie from South Carolina. According to this theory, a “40 percent tariff on imported finished cotton good resulted in a 40 percent increase in price to consumers causing a 40 percent decrease in U.S. sales of imported finished cotton good leading to a 40 percent decrease in demand for raw cotton overseas and a 40 percent decrease in income for planters.” (Richmond)
These federal taxes on imports also posed a concern to the southern planters in the years between 1828 and 1832 that the northerners who were then a majority would subvert their slavery system. A proponent of this concern was then John Calhoun, Vice-President under both the John Quincy Adams’ and Andrew Jackson’s Presidencies and a former Senator from South Carolina, who supported his fellow statesmen’s protests. According to Vice-President Calhoun, a strong supporter of the slavery institution, tariffs would gradually depress the economic viability of the slave south states bordering with the free northern states, and would lead to a decrease in the number of slaves and a gradual elimination of the slavery system. Another argument that John Calhoun had against tariffs on imported goods was that they redistributed wealth from the South to northern manufacturers thus “[protecting] one branch of industry at the expense of others,” from which reasoning he concluded that the federal government used its legislative power to repress minorities to the majority’s favor thus deeming tariffs “unconstitutional, unequal, and oppressive” (Tax Analysts; Calhoun 1828).
Meanwhile, President Andrew Jackson had seen the protests as a possible secession of South Carolina from the Union and therefore a threat to the state of the Union. In President Jackson’s Proclamation Regarding Nullification on December 10, 1832, he had emphasized that it was his constitutional duty to preserve the Union “by all constitutional means” (Jackson 1832). He also deemed the doctrine of nullification abominable, striking the root of the government and the social compact, and reducing everything to anarchy. He even compared the act of nullification to that of treason, while using the tariff and the slavery arguments only as the pretext, and disunion and a southern confederacy as the real object (Latner 1977, 20-24; Jackson 1832).
President Jackson exercised his constitutional duty to preserve the Union by both coercive and conciliatory measures. The former General started with conciliatory measures for the period between 1821 and 1833 before reaching to coercive measures, and eventually succeeding in preserving the Union.
In an effort to address the Nullification Crisis, he signed the Treaty of 1832 which, as mentioned earlier in this article, somewhat lowered the Tariff of 1828’s rates but retained its cloth and iron rates. However, the decreases in rates enacted by the new tax law were not enough for South Carolinians to change their stance, and on November 24, 1832, they organized a special Convention in Columbia where its participants declared – through a written Ordinance of Nullification – the Tariffs of 1828 and 1832 unconstitutional and prohibited collection of customs duties, starting on February 1, 1833, within the state, that is, they nullified the two federal tax laws within the territory of their own state (the People of the State of South Carolina 1832).
His Proclamation was generally intended to attract the South Carolina Unionists, also known as the “deluded” followers of nullification, to his side or at least to dissuade them from participating in a possible war on the nullification side. His rationale was that the South Carolina Unionists were most likely to be persuaded of his stance on the issue of nullification, their ideology being closest to that of a stronger and stabler Union. Strong but also persuasive statements like nullification being “incompatible with the existence of the Union, contradicted expressly by the letter of the Constitution, unauthorized by its spirit, inconsistent with every principle on which it was found, and destructive of the great object for which it was formed” are a lot more likely to appeal to a “deluded” follower of a certain ideology than words like “evil,” “demagogue,” or “demagoguery” the latter two of which he used in his previous reactions to the nullification movement. In addition to that, a year before signing the Treaty of 1832, President Jackson started making more statements in favor of the limited-government approach of lower taxes. In his Third Annual Message, he said that protective tariffs exploited “the great mass of the community” (Latner 1977, 30-32; Jackson 1832).
For that period of time – 1830-1832 – the nullifiers were preparing for a military conflict, and Andrew Jackson focused on it. Coercive measures were not excluded by the old General. In addition to that, he was ready to possibly arrest the Virginia Governor, John Floyd, a Democrat, should Governor Floyd obstruct the passage of President Jackson’s federal troops through the state (Latner 1977, 33).
However, before a military conflict even started, a compromise was agreed upon on February 1833, also known as Tariff of 1833, between Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky, also known as the Great Compromiser, and Vice-President Calhoun. According to the agreement, the rates on imported goods included in the Tariffs of 1828 and 1832 would gradually be reduced for the course of nine years – from 1833 until 1842 to rates deemed acceptable by the bellicose Southerners. Despite his overall win from the Nullification Crisis, President Andrew Jackson managed to have Congress pass the Force Bill, and he then signed it into law on March 2, 1833 (Tax Analysts). In an effort to prevent future Nullification Crises from happening, the measure gave more powers to the federal government – one of which gave the President the right to use whatever force necessary to suppress unlawful means committed by a state against the federal government. (Force Bill 1833, Section 5)
The Force Bill was supported by most of the American people, yet there were still criticisms in the South, including among members of President Jackson’s own party – the Democrats who criticized him of focusing more on force rather than reform.
Andrew Jackson’s acquired duty to preserve the Union by all constitutional means turns out to be critical for the stability of the Union from ideological point of view. While he didn’t succeed in preventing a Civil War 28 years later, he put the beginning of a perception of United States with united people governing united by enacting the Force Bill. And by arguing against the doctrine of nullification as a means of destroying the Union, he put the beginning of a true nationalistic philosophy about the country of birth which would later translate into a superior feeling of belonging to the country relative to a state. That’s what we see nowadays in the United States of America, and President Jackson started it.
Barney, William L. “An Undiagnosed Fever: Political Radicalism in South Carolina.” Reviews in American History 18.2 (1983): 214-8. JStor. Web.
Calhoun, John. “South Carolina Exposition and Protest.” Web.
Freehling, William W. “The Road to Disunion.” 2 (2007): 255. Print.
Jackson, Andrew. “President Jackson’s Proclamation Regarding Nullification.” (1832). Web.
Latner, Richard B. “The Nullification Crisis and Republican Subversion.” Journal of Southern History 44.1 (1977): 19-38. America: History & Life. Web.
Remini, Robert V. “Martin Van Buren and the Tariff of Abominations.” The American Historical Review 63.4 (1958): 903-17. JStor. Web.
Richmond University. “Decreasing Cotton Prices and McDuffie’s Forty.” History Engine. Web.
Taussig, F. W., and Lee, Henry. “The Tariff History of the United States Part I.” The Ludwig von Mises Institute (2003)Print.
Tax Analysts. “1816-1860: The Second American Party System and the Tariff.” Web.
The Force Bill. “An Act to further provide for the collection of duties on imports.” (1833)
The People of the State of South Caroline. “An ordinance to nullify certain acts of the Congress of the United States, purporting to be laws laying duties and imposts on the importation of foreign commodities.” Web.