Nullification Crisis

Place: South Carolina

The doctrine of nullification, the constitutional theory giving states the right to declare federal laws null and void within their territorial borders, originated in the 1790s, when states' rights, strict construction of the U.S. Constitution, and opposition to consolidation of power in the federal government became the foundational principles of the Democratic-Republican Party. When Federalists in Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798 to stifle domestic dissent as war with France became imminent, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson in the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions advocated nullification as "natural right" of states in response to unconstitutional federal legislation. Precisely how states could nullify laws remained imprecise, but the principles of nullification served as the intellectual and philosophical foundation for the Hartford Convention in 1814 and Georgia's conflicts with Cherokee Nation and the Supreme Court in the 1830s.

The most notable use of nullification came in the Nullification Crisis of 1832-33, a confrontation between South Carolina and the federal government over tariffs. Since 1816, Congress had enacted increasingly higher tariffs to protect American industries from foreign competition. The highly protective tariff of 1828--known as the "Tariff of Abominations" by its critics in the South and Northeast--angered many South Carolinians, who viewed it as an unconstitutional tax devised to benefit manufacturing interests in New England at the expense of the agricultural South. They also feared that the increased power given to the federal government by the tariff might be used to attack the institution of slavery. In late 1828, John C. Calhoun, vice-president of the United States and foremost proponent of the theory of nullification, penned his "Exposition and Protest" in response to the Tariff of 1828. Evoking the language and principles of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, Calhoun declared the tariff unconstitutional because it was for protection, not revenue, and therefore favored manufacturing over commerce and agriculture. People within a state or several states, acting in democratically-elected conventions, retained the right to veto any act of Congress that violated the Constitution.

South Carolinians hoped that Andrew Jackson, elected president in 1828, would lower the tariff. When the Jackson administration delayed action, radicals in South Carolina began pushing to nullify the tariff within its jurisdiction without support of other states. Jackson and Calhoun, his vice-president, broke over the issue, a spilt exacerbated by the Eaton Affair and Calhoun's conduct as secretary of war during Jackson's invasion of Florida in the First Seminole War. In July 1832, Jackson signed into law the Tariff of 1832, a compromise measure that retained protection, but lowered rates. The reductions were not enough for the nullifiers in South Carolina, and in October, they won control of the legislature and called for a state convention to meet in November. On November 24, the convention adopted the Ordinance of Nullification, which declared the tariffs of 1828 and 1832 unconstitutional, null and void, and unenforceable in South Carolina after February 1, 1833. In his annual message to Congress, Jackson urged modification of the tariff, and he also asked for legislation to enable him to use the armed forces to enforce the law. On December 10, Jackson issued a proclamation, in which he decried nullification as rebellion and treason, and warned the population of South Carolina of his willingness to use all the power at his disposal to collect the duties and preserve the Union. On March 1, 1833, Congress passed both the Force Bill--which authorized Jackson to use military force against South Carolina--and the Compromise Tariff of 1833, which further lowered duties. South Carolinians approved of the new tariff, and on March 15, the nullification convention rescinded the Ordnance of Nullification, but nullified the Force Bill, a symbolic gesture reaffirming the principles of nullification.

William W. Freehling, Prelude to Civil War: The Nullification Controversy in South Carolina, 1816-1836 (New York: Harper & Row, 1966); Robert V. Remini, Andrew Jackson and the Course of American Democracy, 1833-1845 (New York: Harper & Row, 1984), 8-44; Fletcher M. Green, "Nullification," Dictionary of American History rev. ed. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1976), 5:125-26; Shearer Davis Bowman, "Nullification," The Oxford Companion to United States History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 563.