Thirty years before the Civil War broke out, disunion appeared to be on the horizon with the Nullification Crisis. What started as a debate over the Tariff of Abominations soon morphed into debates over state and federal sovereignty and liberty and disunion. These debates transformed into a national crisis when South Carolina threatened secession, an explicit threat of disunion. However, the United States narrowly avoided a civil war through compromise and the reaffirmation of executive authority.
Since 1816, the United States used tariffs to protect American industry against foreign competition. Protective tariffs formed the foundation of Henry Clay’s American System which served as the main economic policy of the United States until President Andrew Jackson’s election. The first tariff passed was relatively low, but it progressively rose each year until 1828, with what became known as the Tariff of Abominations. Representative Silas Wright, an ally of Jackson, first proposed this tariff in 1828 as a ploy to help Old Hickory’s presidential campaign. The tariff raised duties to between 30-50% on certain raw materials, which protected the Mid-Atlantic and western states which produced these raw materials, but left southern states—and its cotton and tobacco industry—unprotected. In retaliation for the high tariff, foreign markets blocked the sale of American cotton, the South’s chief export and the cornerstone of their economy which caused economic issues in the South. Despite the South’s fervent objection to this tariff, Jackson maintained southern support for his campaign and by backing this tariff garnered support from states such as Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, Kentucky, and Missouri, which proved to be vital in his campaign and helped him win the presidency. In 1828, Jackson’s soon to be Vice President and ally John C. Calhoun of South Carolina wrote an anonymously published a pamphlet titled “Exposition and Protest” which passionately criticized the tariff and laid the groundwork for nullification theory.
Despite southern objections, the tariff passed and went largely forgotten in American consciousness until an exchange on the Senate floor between South Carolinian Senator Robert Hayne and Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster in January 1830 which reopened the debate. Hayne argued that state sovereignty permitted the nullification of federal rulings when those rulings infringed on states’ rights, going so far as to argue for secession in order to preserve state and personal liberty. Webster famously responded with “liberty and union, now and forever, one and inseparable,” to Webster and many other unionists, people, not states comprised the union. Nullification propagated secession which in turn would destroy the union: the sole protector of liberty. Thus, to preserve liberty, one must preserve the union. Nullifiers did not believe in this link between union and liberty but rather argued that it was the states alone which protected individual freedoms from an overreaching federal government.
The issue of nullification divided the White House as Vice President Calhoun staunchly supported states’ rights and served as a spokesman for nullification by revealing he wrote “Exposition and Protest.” Jackson, on the other hand, supported states’ rights, but not at the expense of the Union and once stated he “would rather die in the last ditch than see the union dismantled.” The Nullification Crisis was one in a series of issues that destroyed Jackson and Calhoun’s relationship.
In 1832 Congress replaced the Tariff of Abominations with a lower tariff; however, that was not enough to satisfy the South Carolinians who had made faint threats of nullification since 1828. Almost immediately following Jackson’s re-election in 1832, South Carolina, fortified by the recent election of many state nullifiers, formed a convention that denounced the Tariff of Abominations and its 1832 revision and formally adopted an Ordinance of Nullification. This ordinance declared those tariffs null and void and forbade the collection of duties within the boundary of the state following February 1, 1833. Finally, the ordinance declared that any act of force by Congress against South Carolina would lead to its immediate secession from the union.
In the past Jackson simply acknowledged the supremacy of union over state sovereignty without taking any direct action; however, this explicit threat of secession forced him to act against these nullifiers. Jackson advised his Secretary of War Lewis Cass to prepare for war, and over the course of a few months, Cass complied arms and enlisted a militia in preparation to enter South Carolina to enforce the tariff and prevent secession. During his war preparations, Jackson engaged in a national public relations campaign to discredit nullification in the mind of the American public. Jackson gave speeches against nullification that vehemently denounced South Carolina and promoted unionism. Jackson also gave a special speech to Congress asking them to reaffirm his authority to use force to ensure the execution of United States laws, which Congress complied with in a bill aptly known as Jackson’s force bill.
Despite his preparations, Jackson did not desire a civil war, but rather hoped the nullifiers would back down against his threats. In response to Jackson’s vigorous actions, South Carolinians delayed the enactment of their ordinance. Jackson, in turn, discretely supported Speaker of the House Henry Clay’s efforts to lower the tariff that caused this crisis. On March 2, 1833, Congress passed both Jackson’s and Clay’s tariff reduction. In response, South Carolinians rescinded their Ordinance of Nullification and the crisis passed. Many parties claimed to be the victor of this crisis, Calhoun and his nullifiers for receiving a tariff reduction, Clay for his compromise that prevailed; however, Jackson remained the true victor as he reaffirmed his executive authority and prevented a potential civil war days before his second inauguration.
Although not the first crisis that dealt with state authority over perceived unconstitutional infringements on its sovereignty, the Nullification Crisis represented a pivotal moment in American history as this is the first time tensions between state and federal authority almost led to a civil war. Ultimately, the spirit of union prevailed, and Americans reached a compromise which avoided war. However, this crisis laid the groundwork for the secession theory that reemerged in the 1850s at a time of heightened sectional tensions. By then the United States would not be so lucky, and debates over slavery and the legitimacy of secession would plunge Americans into a horrific civil war.