Nullification Controversy Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Responding to federal tariffs on imports that damaged South Carolina’s economy, the state of South Carolina advocated a theory of nullification, by which sovereign states could ignore unacceptable federal laws. The federal government prevailed on the issue of nullification but eased its tariff levels, allowing both sides to claim victory.

Summary of Event

By the late 1820’s, the southeastern section of the United States was economically depressed. Most of its fiscal ailments were blamed on the protective Tariff of 1828 Tariff of 1828 , which protected the North against competition for its textile goods but limited the South’s disposing of its agricultural commodities on world markets. While the South languished, the industrial Northeast flourished. In fact, the soil in the oldest southern states was badly depleted, which meant that the region could not compete on equal terms with the newer states in the Gulf region. Leadership in the fight against the tariff fell to South Carolina, whose planter aristocrats enjoyed political power and where the relative decline in prosperity was the greatest. Nullification Controversy Tariffs;and nullification[Nullification] Tariff of 1832 Calhoun, John C. [p]Calhoun, John C.;and Nullification Controversy[Nullification controversy] Jackson, Andrew [p]Jackson, Andrew;and Nullification Controversy[Nullification controversy] South Carolina;and Nullification Controversy[Nullification controversy] States’ rights[States rights];and Nullification Controversy[Nullification controversy] [kw]Nullification Controversy (Nov. 24, 1832-Jan. 21, 1833) [kw]Controversy, Nullification (Nov. 24, 1832-Jan. 21, 1833) Nullification Controversy Tariffs;and nullification[Nullification] Tariff of 1832 Calhoun, John C. [p]Calhoun, John C.;and Nullification Controversy[Nullification controversy] Jackson, Andrew [p]Jackson, Andrew;and Nullification Controversy[Nullification controversy] South Carolina;and Nullification Controversy[Nullification controversy] States’ rights[States rights];and Nullification Controversy[Nullification controversy] [g]United States;Nov. 24, 1832-Jan. 21, 1833: Nullification Controversy[1760] [c]Trade and commerce;Nov. 24, 1832-Jan. 21, 1833: Nullification Controversy[1760] [c]Government and politics;Nov. 24, 1832-Jan. 21, 1833: Nullification Controversy[1760] Clay, Henry [p]Clay, Henry;and Nullification Controversy[Nullification controversy]

The keys to South Carolina’s South Carolina;African Americans defiance against the tariff were its racial demography and a very conservative political structure, different from that of its slaveholding neighbors. In 1830, South Carolina was the only state with a absolute majority of black people. Most of the black population was concentrated on the sea islands and tidal flats south of Charleston. The low-country planters controlled state politics. Very high property qualifications for holding office kept power in the hands of the planter elite. This elite controlled the state legislature, which appointed most officials and therefore had tremendous leverage on public opinion in the state.

South Carolina South Carolina;cotton Cotton was primarily a cotton-producing state and had experienced a collapse of cotton prices in the Panic of 1819, falling production because of soil erosion, competition from cotton produced on cheaper and more fertile western lands, and an exodus of its white population. Up-country Slavery;and Nullification Controversy[Nullification controversy] slaveholders incurred heavy losses when upland cotton prices fell 72 percent by 1829, and they were receptive to the argument of the antitariff advocates—the so-called Nullifiers—who blamed the tariff for their plight. Tariff rates had increased as much as 50 percent by 1828, and the Nullifiers argued that these high tariffs caused prices on domestic manufactured goods to rise, while potentially limiting export markets for agricultural goods. In effect, they argued, the tariffs penalized one class of people for the benefit of another. Along with the tariff issue, there was the issue of slavery. The leaders of nullification were rice and sea-island cotton Cotton planters whose greater fear was not losing cotton profits but losing control over their African American majority.

South Carolina’s most eloquent spokesman was John C. Calhoun, who by the late 1820’s had completed his philosophical change from ardent nationalist to states’ rights advocate. Calhoun then advocated the ultimate in states’ rights thinking—a belief in, and support of, the doctrine of nullification, first stated by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in the Virginia and Kentucky Resolves Virginia and Kentucky Resolves (1798) Congress, U.S.;Virginia and Kentucky Resolves of 1798. In 1828 Calhoun, John C. [p]Calhoun, John C.;election of 1828 , while running as a vice presidential candidate, Calhoun anonymously wrote the “South Carolina Exposition and Protest.” This essay protested against the Tariff of 1828, known as the Tariff of Abominations by southerners because of its high protective duties. Calhoun’s authorship of this document remained secret, and for four years South Carolina did not act upon it, hoping that President Andrew Jackson would work for a lower tariff. The “Exposition” and a later paper called “A Disquisition on Government” explained Calhoun’s doctrine of nullification.

Contrary to popular belief, Calhoun’s theory did not advocate secession; rather, he believed that nullification would prevent the disruption of the union. Calhoun saw nullification as an antidote to secessionist feelings. The basic tenets of his argument were that sovereignty was, by its very nature, absolute and indivisible. Each state was sovereign, and the union was a compact among the states. Each individual state entered into an agreement with the others, and the terms of this covenant went into the U.S. Constitution.

John C. Calhoun.

(Courtesy of University of Texas at Austin)

The Constitution Constitution, U.S.;separation of powers provided for a separation of powers between the states and the federal government, but not a division of sovereignty. Sovereignty was not the sum of a number of governmental powers but the will of the political community, which could not be divided without being destroyed. The states had been sovereign under the Articles of Confederation, and they had not given up their supreme authority when they joined the new union. Since the union had been created by the states, and not vice versa, it logically followed that the creator should be more powerful than its creation. As the federal government was not supreme, it could exercise only those powers given it by the states, as embodied in the Constitution. Should it exceed these powers, the measures enacted would be unconstitutional.

Calhoun’s theory raised the question of who was to be the arbiter of constitutionality. Certainly not the U.S. Supreme Court, as it was an instrument of the federal government: If the federal government were not sovereign, then one of its branches could not be sovereign. Supreme authority therefore rested solely in the people of the states. When a state believed that a federal law exceeded the delegated powers of Congress, that state could declare the law null and void and prevent its enforcement within its own boundaries.

When passing on the constitutionality of a law of the federal government, the state acted through a convention called for the express purpose of considering this question, for this was the only way in which the people of a state could give expression to their sovereign will. This action, however, should be taken only as a last resort to protect its rights. Congress could then counter by offering an amendment authorizing the powers that the state contested. If the amendment were not ratified, the law was to be annulled, not only for the state in question but also for the entire nation. Should the amendment pass, the dissatisfied state would have to yield or secede—it could not remain in the union without accepting the amendment. Thus, the final arbiter would be the same power that created the Constitution, the people of the states. Calhoun was sure that this theory would prevent secession, for if three-fourths of the states were to speak against one state, that state would be unlikely to secede.

After simmering for four years, the issue of nullification erupted in 1832 over a new tariff. In December, 1831, President Andrew Jackson recommended to Congress a downward revision of the tariff and the elimination of the worst features of the Tariff of Abominations. Such a bill finally was pushed through on July 14, 1832, but the new tariff was not low enough to satisfy southern planters. Although some of the so-called “abominations” in the tariff bill were removed, the general level of the duties was only slightly lower. The greatest reductions were made on noncompetitive manufactured items, and the protective makeup of the tariff hardly had been changed.

By mid-1832, the South Carolina extremists were ready to put the nullification theory into action. Many denounced the Tariff of 1832 as unconstitutional and oppressive to the southern people. In the subsequent state election that fall, the States’ Rights and Unionist parties made the tariff and nullification the chief issues. When the States’ Rights Party won more than two-thirds of the seats in the legislature, it promptly called for a state convention. The convention met in November, 1832, and by a vote of 136 to 26 adopted an Ordinance of Nullification on November 24. Under that ordinance, the Tariffs of 1828 and 1832 were both declared null and void. After February 1, 1833, the tariff duties were not to be collected, and should the federal government attempt to collect them forcibly, South Carolina would secede from the union.

Jackson met this challenge in typical fashion. On December 10, 1832, he boldly proclaimed that the Constitution formed a government, not a league, and that the power of a single state to annul a federal law was “incompatible with the existence of the union, contradicted by the letter of the Constitution, unauthorized by its spirit, inconsistent with every principle on which it was founded, and destructive to the great object for which it was formed.” He called nullification an “impractical absurdity” and concluded that “disunion by armed force is treason.” Treason;and Nullification Controversy[Nullification Controversy] This “Proclamation to the People of South Carolina” received the enthusiastic support of nationalists.

Although Jackson was bold, he was also conciliatory. In his fourth annual message to Congress, in December, 1832, he promised to press for further reduction of the hated tariffs. This was repeated later the same month when the president issued a proclamation to the people of South Carolina. On January 16, 1833, Jackson sent a message to Congress reviewing the circumstances in South Carolina and recommending measures that would enable him to cope successfully with the situation. Tension mounted as the Senate passed the Force Bill in February. This measure authorized Jackson to use the U.S. Army and Navy to enforce the federal laws, if necessary. On January 21, South Carolina politicians agreed to postpone execution of the state’s nullification ordinance until after Congress adjourned in March.

In fulfilling his promise to see that the tariffs were reduced, Jackson did his best to see that legislation giving him full power to force obedience to the laws was accompanied by bills to reduce the tariffs. While the Force Bill was being debated, Henry Clay Clay, Henry [p]Clay, Henry;and Nullification Controversy[Nullification controversy] brought forward a new compromise tariff bill calling for the gradual reduction of tariff duties over the next ten years. By 1842, the tariff was not to exceed 20 percent. South Carolinians waited anxiously to see what would happen, for it was already apparent that no other southern states were coming to its aid, and it would have to fight it out alone. Calhoun, who had resigned the vice presidency after the passage of the Tariff of 1832 and had been elected immediately to the Senate, objected to the Force Bill but feared that strong opposition might hurt the chances of reconciliation that were presented by the Compromise Tariff. He and Clay Clay, Henry [p]Clay, Henry;and Nullification Controversy[Nullification controversy] worked to push the new tariff bill through Congress, and on March 2, 1833, Jackson signed into law both the Force Bill and the Compromise Tariff of 1833.

Significance

After the Compromise Tariff was passed, South Carolina repealed its own Ordinance of Nullification; however, in a last gesture of defiance, the state convention declared the Force Bill null and void. Jackson ignored this final face-saving move on the part of South Carolina, for the Force Bill was irrelevant while the tariff duties were being collected.

Both sides claimed victory. Nationalists declared that the power of the federal government had been upheld by both the president and Congress, while South Carolina asserted that nullification had proved an effective method of sustaining states’ rights. However, the failure of any other southern state to rally to South Carolina’s defense showed that the doctrine of nullification was unpopular, and from that time forward, militant southerners looked to the doctrine of secession as their best redress of grievances.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bancroft, Frederic. Calhoun and the South Carolina Nullification Movement. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1928. A brief historical and critical study of Calhoun and the nullification controversy as a political event in Jackson’s administration, and of the events leading up to and following it.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bartlett, Irving H. John C. Calhoun: A Biography. New York: W. W. Norton, 1993. Scholarly biography, tracing Calhoun’s evolution from ardent nationalist to advocate of sectionalism and nullification.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Boucher, Chauncey S. The Nullification Controversy in South Carolina. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1916. A detailed monograph relating the story of nullification, as found in contemporaneous newspapers, manuscripts, and writings of the participants.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Calhoun, John C. The Papers of John C. Calhoun. Edited by Frank M. Merriwether, et al. 28 vols. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1959-2003. Collection of all of Calhoun’s surviving papers, which include many documents on the subject of nullification.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Capers, Gerald M. John C. Calhoun: Opportunist. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1960. Depicts Calhoun as a Machiavellian politician willing to sacrifice friends, family, and principles to become president.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coit, Margaret L. John C. Calhoun. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1950. A Pulitzer Prize-winning biography that presents Calhoun as a statesman and a family man—a farmer at heart, but a politician in practice.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Freehling, William. Prelude to Civil War: The Nullification Controversy in South Carolina, 1816-1836. New York: Harper & Row, 1965. Comprehensive study of the crisis that marked Calhoun’s shift from nationalism to sectionalism. Includes a good description of his reluctant participation in the event and provides a penetrating analysis of the significance of nullification.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Remini, Robert V. Andrew Jackson. 3 vols. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. Nearly definitive biography that treats every aspect of Jackson’s presidency in some detail.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Page. The Nation Comes of Age: A People’s History of the Ante-bellum Years. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981. Chapter 5 emphasizes the themes of slavery and the extension of democracy.

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