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The Moment Of Decision
When Harry Truman was President of the United States he kept on his desk a little sign with the reminder: “The buck stops here.” This was his way of telling himself that when the responsibility for decision conies to a President, he has to meet it all alone. He can ask for all kinds of advice, and any amount of briefing, but he has to make up his mind by himself. Once in a generation or so his decisions send powerful echoes down the years. They may take the country along a path never before followed, enlarge the powers of the American government itself, or commit the whole nation to a policy or a program that will have permanent and vital effect. At such moments the President has to have vision, courage, and a sense of historic mission. To illustrate the matter, we consider below five moments in time in which a President made a decision whose consequences to the republic still endure.
August 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 5
There was more to it, of course, than a simple matter of tariffs. North and South had begun to develop into different communities, with different interests and different ways of protecting those interests. Somewhere at the bottom of it lay slavery, which meant that slave states had one sort of economy and social organization and that non-slave states had another, and on this difference there grew up sharply conflicting ways of appraising the Union itself, the role of the federal government, and the duties and powers of the separate states. Under everything Calhoun was saying was the theory that the nation was not necessarily permanent. It was simply an association of independent states which could separate whenever they chose— would separate, if they felt sufficiently aggrieved.
So there was heated debate in Congress. Calhoun himself wanted the Union preserved, but he believed it could be saved only by his doctrine of nullification. Men like Daniel Webster thundered against him, raising the cry, “Liberty and Union … one and inseparable,” and earnest men began to fear that the Union would presently dissolve. By 1830 it was clear that a crisis was approaching.
Jackson himself had no doubts. The nullification-secession theory struck him as little short of treason, and he made his own position clear. At a banquet in 1830 he arose to propose a toast. Looking squarely at Calhoun, he raised his glass and cried: “Our Union: it must be preserved!”
Fine words, but ineffective. In 1832 the business came to a head when Congress passed a new tariff act which seemed to South Carolina, and much of the rest of the South, even more discriminatory than the one that already existed. Wholeheartedly South Carolina embraced Calhoun’s doctrine. Late in November a state convention announced that the tariff acts of 1828 and 1832 both were null and void in South Carolina, prohibited federal officers from trying to enforce them, and said that any federal attempt at coercion would compel South Carolina to leave the Union. Calhoun resigned as Vice President and entered the Senate to lead the fight for nullification.
Showdown, in other words.
Jackson met this challenge head on. He announced that the South Carolina position was “incompatible with the existence of the Union, contradicted expressly by the letter of the Constitution, unauthorized by its spirit, inconsistent with every principle on which it was founded, and destructive of the great object for which it was formed.” He did not stop there. He sent a warship and several revenue cutters to Charleston, prepared to lead an army into the state, threatened to hang Senator Calhoun, and asserted flatly that nullification-secession “means insurrection and war” and that he, Old Hickory in person, was prepared to treat it that way.
At the same time he showed a willingness to be reasonable once the ground rules were established. For the principle that no state could overrule federal laws or leave the Union he was quite prepared to shed blood; but it was not this particular tariff act, or any other specific act of Congress, that would lead him to start shooting. With the help of moderate-minded leaders like Henry Clay, a compromise was devised. The tariff rates were lowered (which after all was what South Carolinians wanted most) and South Carolina in turn revoked its ordinance of nullification. The moment of crisis passed, and there was no more talk about troops, or hangings, or a breakup of the Union.
By his forthright action and his ability to accept a compromise once the supremacy of federal authority had been demonstrated, Jackson had at least postponed a threatened split in the Union; had postponed it, as things worked out, for about thirty years, which was just long enough. The Union could have broken up in 1832, simply because it was still so new and because the government had not yet shown itself prepared to make war to assert its own permanence. By the 1860’s it was strong enough to meet the test, and it had Andrew Jackson’s precedent to go on. Abraham Lincoln followed in his footsteps, treating secession as rebellion rather than as a natural right of the separate states, and the power and permanency of the federal government were established along the lines Jackson had laid down.
Jackson had done just what Jefferson had done; he had assumed that the President of the United States had the power and the duty, in time of emergency, to do whatever the emergency itself demanded, and the office became larger as a result.
“I am here. I must do the best I can”
A man who was fully prepared to use its enlarged authority was Abraham Lincoln, who had to meet the test of secession when it finally came. Lincoln showed his willingness to act on his own initiative in a number of cases: most notably, perhaps, in the summer of 1862, when—on the skimpiest of authority, and with scant assurance that the thing was politically feasible—he turned what had begun as a war to save the Union into a war to end slavery.