South Carolina - Nullification Crisis

The Nullification Crisis was a sectional crisis during the presidency of Andrew Jackson that arose when the state of South Carolina attempted to nullify a federal law passed by the United States Congress. The crisis developed during the national economic downturn throughout the 1820s that hit South Carolina particularly hard.

South Carolina’s attempt was based on a constitutional theory articulated by favorite son John C. Calhoun. He believed that any state could unilaterally, or in cooperation with other states, refuse to comply with any federal law which a convention selected by the people of the state ruled was unconstitutional. The theoretical issue related to the very nature of the United States Constitution.

As historian Forest McDonald wrote, “Of all the problems that beset the United States during the century from the Declaration of Independence to the end of Reconstruction, the most pervasive concerned disagreements about the nature of the Union and the line to be drawn between the authority of the general government and that of the several states.” In this specific case, however, most states’ rights supporters outside of South Carolina considered the "nullifier position" to be extreme and rash.

Many South Carolina politicians blamed the state’s economic problems on a national tariff policy that developed after the War of 1812. The highly protective Tariff of 1828 (also called the Tariff of Abominations) was enacted into law in 1828 during the presidency of John Quincy Adams. The tariff was opposed in the South and parts of New England. Opponents generally felt that the protective features were harmful to agrarian interests and were unconstitutional because they favored one sector of the economy over another.

Proponents found no constitutional restriction on the purposes for which tariffs could be enacted. They argued that strengthening the industrial capacity of the nation was in the interest of the entire country. The expectation of the tariff’s opponents was that with the election of Jackson, the tariff would be significantly reduced. By 1828, South Carolina state politics increasingly organized around the tariff issue. When the Jackson administration failed to address its concerns, the most radical faction in the state began to advocate that the state itself declare the tariff null and void within South Carolina. In Washington, an open split on the issue occurred between President Andrew Jackson and Vice-President John C. Calhoun.

On July 14, 1832, after Calhoun had resigned his office, President Jackson signed into law the Tariff of 1832, which made some reductions in tariff rates. The reductions were too little for South Carolina. In November of 1832, the state called for a convention. By a vote of 136 to 26, the convention overwhelmingly adopted an Ordinance of Nullification drawn by Chancellor William Harper. It declared that the tariffs of both 1828 and 1832 were unconstitutional and unenforceable in South Carolina.

In late February, the U.S. Congress passed the Force Bill (called Jackson's Bloody Bill or War Bill by opponents), which authorized President Jackson to use military force against South Carolina. Violence was averted when Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun worked out a compromise. Congress passed the new negotiated tariff satisfactory to South Carolina. The South Carolina convention reconvened and repealed its tariff Nullification Ordinance on March 11, 1833. “In a purely symbolic gesture,” it then nullified the Force Bill.

The crisis was over, and both sides could find reasons to claim victory. The tariff rates were reduced. The states’ rights doctrine of nullification as articulated by South Carolina had been “irretrievably smashed.” While tariff policy would continue to be a national political issue between Democrats and the newly-emerged Whig Party, by the 1850s the intertwined issues of slavery and territorial expansion would become the most significant and sectionally divisive issues in the nation.


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