1828 175 Years Ago

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On December 19 South Carolina’s legislature issued a set of resolutions vigorously opposing a tariff that Congress had enacted earlier in the year. The Tariff of Abominations, as it came to be known, imposed onerous duties on a wide range of imported goods and was bitterly resented throughout the South. The reason: High tariffs favored manufacturers and free labor, and the South had little of either. But the document that laid out South Carolina’s resolutions, titled South Carolina Exposition and Protest , went beyond simply decrying the tariff, for it also asserted a new and potentially explosive constitutional principle: nullification, the right of a state to declare federal laws invalid within its borders.

The Exposition and Protest had secretly been written by John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, who was finishing his term as John Quincy Adams’s Vice President and was about to be inaugurated as Andrew Jackson’s. Since Calhoun still harbored hopes of being elected President himself, he did not openly admit his authorship of the inflammatory resolutions. The reasoning behind them, however, and the force with which they were expressed were easily recognized as his.

The federal government, Calhoun said, had been created by the states to serve them with certain carefully delegated powers. And just as the federal government could nullify state laws that overstepped their bounds, so too could a state nullify federal laws that infringed on its rights. In the case of the tariff, Calhoun alleged that it had been passed not to raise revenue—a valid purpose —but to promote Northern economic interests at the expense of the South. This, he said, made it unconstitutional.

South Carolina’s protest did not actually nullify the tariff but merely asserted that the state had the power to do so, while inviting Congress to repeal the offending legislation. Over the next year sectional tensions mounted as Georgia, Virginia, and Mississippi all endorsed South Carolina’s position. By 1830 the dispute had turned into a full-blown crisis. The following year Calhoun came out openly for nullification, and in 1832 he resigned as Vice President to return to the Senate after South Carolina passed nullifying legislation. President Jackson responded by threatening to enforce the tariff with troops. Matters looked grim until Congress passed a reduced tariff in 1833 and South Carolina backed off on its threat—for the time being.