Message to the Senate and House Regarding South Carolina’s Nullification Ordinance Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

By these various proceedings, therefore, the State of South Carolina has forced the General Government, unavoidably, to decide the new and dangerous alternative of permitting a State to obstruct the execution of the laws within its limits or seeing it attempt to execute a threat of withdrawing from the Union. That portion of the people at present exercising the authority of the State solemnly assert their right to do either and as solemnly announce their determination to do one or the other.

In my opinion, both purposes are to be regarded as revolutionary in their character and tendency, and subversive of the supremacy of the laws anal of the integrity of the Union. The result of each is the same, since a State in which, by an usurpation of power, the constitutional authority of the Federal Government is openly defied and set aside wants only the form to be independent of the Union.

The right of the people of a single State to absolve themselves at will and without the consent of the other States from their most solemn obligations, and hazard the liberties and happiness of the millions composing this Union, can not be acknowledged. Such authority is believed to be utterly repugnant both to the principles upon which the General Government is constituted and to the objects which it is expressly formed to attain.

Against all acts which may be alleged to transcend the constitutional power of the Government, or which may be inconvenient or oppressive in their operation, the Constitution itself has prescribed the modes of redress. It is the acknowledged attribute of free institutions that under them the empire of reason and law is substituted for the power of the sword. To no other source can appeals for supposed wrongs be made consistently with the obligations of South Carolina; to no other can such appeals be made with safety at any time; and to their decisions, when constitutionally pronounced, it becomes the duty no less of the public authorities than of the people in every case to yield a patriotic submission.

That a State or any other great portion of the people, suffering under long and intolerable oppression and having tried all constitutional remedies without the hope of redress, may have a natural right, when their happiness can be no otherwise secured, and when they can do so without greater injury to others, to absolve themselves from their obligations to the Government and appeal to the last resort, needs not on the present occasion be denied.

The existence of this right, however, must depend upon the causes which may justify its exercise. It is the ultima ratio, which presupposes that the proper appeals to all other means of redress have been made in good faith, and which can never be rightfully resorted to unless it be unavoidable. It is not the right of the State, but of the individual, and of all the individuals in the State. It is the right of mankind generally to secure by all means in their power the blessings of liberty and happiness; but when for these purposes any body of men have voluntarily associated themselves under a particular form of government, no portion of them can dissolve the association without acknowledging the correlative right in the remainder to decide whether that dissolution can be permitted consistently with the general happiness. In this view it is a right dependent upon the power to enforce it. Such a right, though it may be admitted to preexist and can not be wholly surrendered, is necessarily subjected to limitations in all free governments, and in compacts of all kinds freely and voluntarily entered into, and in which the interest and welfare of the individual become identified with those of the community of which he is a member. In compacts between individuals, however deeply they may affect their relations, these principles are acknowledged to create a sacred obligation; and in compacts of civil government, involving the liberties and happiness of millions of mankind, the obligation can not be less.

Without adverting to the particular theories to which the federal compact has given rise, both as to its formation and the parties to it, and without inquiring whether it be merely federal or social or national, it is sufficient that it must be admitted to be a compact and to possess the obligations incident to a compact; to be “a compact by which power is created on the one hand and obedience exacted on the other; a compact freely, voluntarily, and solemnly entered into by the several States and ratified by the people thereof, respectively; a compact by which the several States and the people thereof, respectively, have bound themselves to each other and to the Federal Government, and by which the Federal Government is bound to the several States and to every citizen of the United States.” To this compact, in whatever mode it may have been done, the people of South Carolina have freely and voluntarily given their assent, and to the whole and every part of it they are, upon every principle of good faith, inviolably bound. Under this obligation they are bound and should be required to contribute their portion of the public expense, and to submit to all laws made by the common consent, in pursuance of the Constitution, for the common defense and general welfare, until they can be changed in the mode which the compact has provided for the attainment of those great ends of the Government and of the Union. Nothing less than causes which would justify revolutionary remedy can absolve the people from this obligation, and for nothing less can the Government permit it to be done without violating its own obligations, by which, under the compact, it is bound to the other States and to every citizen of the United States. . . .

For this purpose it might be proper to provide that whenever by any unlawful combination or obstruction in any State or in any port it should become impracticable faithfully to collect the duties, the President of the United States should be authorized to alter and abolish such of the districts and ports of entry as should be necessary, and to establish the custom-house at some secure place within some port or harbor of such State, and in such cases it should be the duty of the collector to reside at such place, and to detain all vessels and cargoes until the duties imposed by law should be properly secured or paid in cash deducting interest; that in such cases it should be unlawful to take the vessel and cargo from the custody of the proper officer of the customs unless by process from the ordinary judicial tribunals of the United States, and that in case of an attempt otherwise to take the property by a force too great to be overcome by the officers of the customs it should be lawful to protect the possession of the officers by the employment of the land and naval forces and militia, under provisions similar to those authorized by the eleventh section of the act of the 8th of January, 1809.

This provision, however, would not shield the officers and citizens of the United States, acting under the laws, from suits and prosecutions in the tribunals of the State which might thereafter be brought against them, nor would it protect their property from the proceeding by distress, and it may well be apprehended that it would be insufficient to insure a proper respect to the process of the constitutional tribunals in prosecutions for offenses against the United States and to protect the authorities of the United States, whether judicial or ministerial, in the performance of their duties. It would, moreover, be inadequate to extend the protection due from the Government to that portion of the people of South Carolina against outrage and oppression of any kind who may manifest their attachment and yield obedience to the laws of the Union.

It may therefore be desirable to revive, with some modifications better adapted to the occasion, the sixth section of the act of the 3rd March, 1815, which expired on the 4th March, 1817, by the limitation of that of 27th April, 1816, and to provide that in any case where suit shall be brought against any individual in the courts of the State for any act done under the laws of the United States he should be authorized to remove the said cause by petition into the circuit court of the United States without any copy of the record, and that the court should proceed to hear and determine the same as if it had been originally instituted therein; and that in all cases of injuries to the persons or property of individuals for disobedience to the ordinance and laws of South Carolina in pursuance thereof redress may be sought in the courts of the United States. It may be expedient also, by modifying the resolution of the 3rd March, 1791, to authorize the marshals to make the necessary provision for the safe-keeping of prisoners committed under the authority of the United States.

Provisions less than these, consisting as they do for the most part rather of a revival of the policy of former acts called for by the existing emergency than of the introduction of any unusual or rigorous enactments, would not cause the laws of the Union to be properly respected or enforced. It is believed these would prove adequate unless the military forces of the State of South Carolina authorized by the late act of the legislature should be actually embodied and called out in aid of their proceedings and of the provisions of the ordinance generally. Even in that case, however, it is believed that no more will be necessary than a few modifications of its terms to adapt the act of 1795 to the present emergency, as by that act the provisions of the law of 1792 were accommodated to the crisis then existing, and by conferring authority upon the President to give it operation during the session of Congress, and without the ceremony of a proclamation, whenever it shall be officially made known to him by the authority of any State, or by the courts of the United States, that within the limits of such State the laws of the United States will be openly opposed and their execution obstructed by the actual employment of military force, or by any unlawful means whatsoever too great to be otherwise overcome.

In closing this communication, I should do injustice to my own feelings not to express my confident reliance upon the disposition of each department of the Government to perform its duty and to cooperate in all measures necessary in the present emergency.

The crisis undoubtedly invokes the fidelity of the patriot and the sagacity of the statesman, not more in removing such portion of the public burden as may be necessary than in preserving the good order of society and in the maintenance of well-regulated liberty.

While a forbearing spirit may, and I trust will, be exercised toward the errors of our brethren in a particular quarter, duty to the rest of the Union demands that open and organized resistance to the laws should not be executed with impunity.

The rich inheritance bequeathed by our fathers has devolved upon us the sacred obligation of preserving it by the same virtues which conducted them through the eventful scenes of the Revolution and ultimately crowned their struggle with the noblest model of civil institutions. They bequeathed to us a Government of laws and a Federal Union founded upon the great principle of popular representation. After a successful experiment of forty-four years, at a moment when the Government and the Union are the objects of the hopes of the friends of civil liberty throughout the world, and in the midst of public and individual prosperity unexampled in history, we are called to decide whether these laws possess any force and that Union the means of self-preservation. The decision of this question by an enlightened and patriotic people can not be doubtful. For myself, fellow-citizens, devoutly relying upon that kind Providence which has hitherto watched over our destinies, and actuated by a profound reverence for those institutions I have so much cause to love, and for the American people, whose partiality honored me with their highest trust, I have determined to spare no effort to discharge the duty which in this conjuncture is devolved upon me. That a similar spirit will actuate the representatives of the American people is not to be questioned; and I fervently pray that the Great Ruler of Nations may so guide your deliberations and our joint measures as that they may prove salutary examples not only to the present but to future times, and solemnly proclaim that the Constitution and the laws are supreme and the Union indissoluble.

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