The Nullification Crisis

Edward Livingston as Secretary of State.

John Calhoun and his like-minded supporters hoped that nullification would become a legitimate alternative to secession for the South. Nullification was the doctrine that Calhoun believed meant that states could nullify a federal law, on the basis that states had their own sovereignty and the federal government could not infringe on that sovereignty. See Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 402. This approach was designed to primarily perpetuate the institution of slavery, without the conflict culminating in secession, or worse, civil war.

Opponents of nullification, like Edward Livingston, did not see the practicality or the sustainability of the doctrine. Livingston endorsed “a synthesis of nationalism and state rights based on a theory of divided sovereignty, shared by both state and national authority; this was the standard doctrine in the Democratic Party and would remain so for many years to come.” See id. at 405.

Not all southerners agreed with the idea of nullification. In fact, many southerners chose to rely on simply normal politics, “with a sympathetic president representing the will of a majority of the electorate, rather than on a novel and drastic theory about state sovereignty.” Id. at 407. Many southerners saw nullification as “a quixotic quest after an abstraction.” Id.

South Carolina had embraced nullification, declaring that the Tariff Act of 1832 was unconstitutional and thus could not be enforced in the state, creating what has been deemed the Nullification Crisis. President Andrew Jackson warned a South Carolina congressman that “if one drop of blood be shed there in defiance of the laws of the United States, I will hang the first man of them I can get my hands on to the first tree I can find.” Id. at 406 citing Augustus Buell, History of Andrew Jackson (New York, 1904), II, 244-45. With Jackson’s forceful response, the threat of nullification in South Carolina ultimately passed, a shot to Calhoun and his supporters.

Shortly thereafter, Henry Clay had seen through the Distribution Bill through Congress on March 1, 1832. Id. at 409. The Distribution Bill was “an early example of revenue-sharing,” as it distributed “federal revenues to the states for internal improvements, education, and African colonization, with the money to come from public land sales.” Id. Then, President Jackson vetoed the bill, sounding the death knell for the supporters of nullification. See id.

The theory of nullification would never be taken seriously again. Secession would replace it as a theory for resolving the tension that sectionalism had introduced to America. Perhaps ironically, Calhoun had sought to avoid secession by advocating for nullification, and the net result was that secession was “endorsed more strongly than ever by the ardent defenders of slavery.” Id. at 410.

Despite Calhoun’s creative policy idea, it was clear that Americans were digging in their heels and perpetuating the sectionalism that was gripping the country. Virtually every decision that Americans were making was through the prism of how it would impact slavery and how it would further divide the North and the South. Only the Civil War would resolve this strain.

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