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Today’s States’ Rights debate is in fact as old as the republic—and not yet as contentious as it got in the 1830s
October 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 6
This kind of nullification, the Exposition argued, was unlikely to happen often. It would actually prevent secession, though that was a legitimate last resort. It even left the door open for South Carolina to go along if three-quarters of the states should amend the Constitution. It was, Calhoun insisted to his dying day, a means of preserving the Union as it should be, with all the member states treated fairly.
Reasonable as it sounded, South Carolina voters rejected the nullifiers in 1832 and elected a moderate majority to the state’s legislature, which printed the Exposition and Protest but did not call a nullification convention. The moderates’ hope was that Calhoun would use his influence in the administration to get the tariff lowered without a clash.
Instead things went terribly wrong. Calhoun and Jackson split on a variety of issues, of which Old Hickory’s flinty nationalism was only one. Their hardening enmity set up one of those great tableaux that adorned traditional history books: a Democratic-party dinner early in 1830 at which the President, called on for a toast, gazed straight at Calhoun and proposed: “Our Federal Union. It must and shall be preserved.” To which the Vice President retorted with unflinching lifted gaze: “The Union—next to our liberties most dear.”
By 1832 an isolated Calhoun watched helplessly as Jackson won re-election with a new Vice President, New York’s politically astute Martin Van Buren. Continued hard times and increased anxiety over slavery turned the South Carolina tide and swept the nullifiers to victory in state elections. Calhoun was now openly among them, having acknowledged his authorship of the Exposition and Protest and lamenting that pro-tariff nationalists were sacrificing the Union to a passion for riches. “I never suspected that a people could so sadly degenerate,” he declared.
The nullifiers were aflame, but so was Andrew Jackson, who said that nullification was “treason.”
The crisis broke in November 1832, when the special nullification convention was convoked and decreed that after the next February it should “not be lawful … to enforce payment to duties … within the limits of this state.” Any attempt by Congress to use military measures would result in secession. The nullifiers were aflame, but so was Andrew Jackson. In a January message to Congress he proclaimed that nullification was expressly contradicted by the letter and spirit of the Constitution, that “disunion by armed force” was “treason.” He called for legislation, known as the Force Bill, to let him use the Army and Navy, if necessary, to deal with the crisis. South Carolina’s legislature responded by giving Gov. Robert Hayne the authority to raise state troops, and some twenty-five thousand volunteers were soon drilling the winter away.
But behind the fist shaking on both sides there was some prudence. Early in February 1833 Sen. Henry Clay introduced a plan to slice protective duties in half over a ten-year span, reducing them finally to a level that could be considered “for revenue only.” Clay’s bill was promptly supported by none other than Sen. John C. Calhoun, who had left the Vice Presidency and had been elected to the Senate by the South Carolina legislature. The revised tariff passed both houses by March 1. The Force Bill—now more symbolic than likely to take effect—passed by big majorities within a week. Calhoun then rushed home to help talk moderation to the reconvened special convention, where extreme nullifiers still threatened secession over the mere threat of national coercion. A compromise finally prevailed. The convention rescinded the offending original ordinance—and then proceeded to “nullify” the Force Bill.
So principle was verbally upheld even as the armies marched back downhill. Jackson preserved the Union, and Calhoun could write to a friend that he had “no doubts the [tariff] system has got its death wound” and nullification had dealt “the fatal blow.” That’s the kind of resolution that I confess I like to see. But it was of course only a short-term outcome. In 1860–61 moderation lost and civil war came (followed by high tariffs).
Calhoun had gone to his grave in 1850, staunchly calling for the preservation of the Union by granting the South a veto over federal encroachments on its rights. In my graduate school days he was much admired as a farseeing defender of the claims of a permanent minority within the nation. But even then I simply couldn’t divorce his abstractions from their real-life pro-slavery context. So much depends on one’s initial prejudices. I wonder, for example, if Calhoun came back to life, what he would make of arguments much like his own advanced by African-American advocates like Lani Guinier.