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Jackson Stares Down South Carolina

June 2024
3min read

When the Palmetto State threatened to nullify federal statutes at will, President Jackson met it with tough rhetoric and threat of force -- and postponed the Civil War for three decades.

War was at hand. Upstairs in his White House study over the long winter of 1832-33, President Andrew Jackson stood strong against a distant state that posed, he believed, an all too imminent threat to the Union. South Carolina was defying him, and he hated it: he believed to his core that the state was putting the nation in jeopardy. Four hundred and fifty miles down the Atlantic seaboard in Charleston, radicals were raising an army to defend South Carolina's right to nullify the federal statutes it chose not to accept.

Speaking in Boston, Senator Daniel Webster, a usually staunch opponent of the president, rallied to Jackson's defense by denouncing nullification with the eloquence that had made him a lion of Capitol Hill: "It is resistance to law by force, it is disunion by force, it is secession by force: it is civil war." The Constitution that Jackson had sworn to "preserve, protect, and defend in the oath first taken by George Washington in 1789 was only 43 years old; the nation itself, dating from the Declaration of Independence, was just 56. "I expect soon to hear that a civil war of extermination has commenced," said Jackson. Though he tried to contain his anger, he failed: "I will meet all things with deliberate firmness and forbearance, but woe to those nullifiers who shed the first blood."

What unfortunately came to be known as the Nullification Crisis a bland name for an epic struggle—is largely forgotten now, confined to the memories and imaginations of historians. The events of 1832-33, however, were critical to the course of American history by postponing the Civil War. Lincoln drew inspiration from Jackson's handling of the crisis, consulting a copy of Old Hickory's Nullification Proclamation while drafting his own first inaugural address in Springfield in 1860-61. Like Lincoln, Jackson had been determined to keep the country together, no matter what the cost.

Jackson drafted orders for Gen. Winfield Scott to lead federal troops against the radical forces. Jackson, the old general, would see that Scott got whatever he needed. If the rebel leaders—who included Jackson's former vice president, John C. Calhoun—raised 12,000 men, Jackson promised to muster double the force. Though the immediate issue centered on economics—the largely agrarian South Carolina felt burdened by a federal tariff on manufactured goods that grossly increased the price of Yankee products—the real question, everyone knew, was about power. If Washington could carry the day on this, what next? Could slavery fall victim to federal law? The South believed so.

For Jackson, the task before him stretched beyond statecraft. It was personal. His father had died the year he was born; the Revolutionary War had claimed the lives of his mother and his brothers, losses that left him alone in a brutally hard world as little more than a child. Jackson sought to identify his life with his country's. The United States, he once said, was "one great family," and he believed it was his destiny to preserve it.

At moments of stress or deep emotion his statecraft and leadership were often marked by such imagery of family. Scribbling a draft of his proclamation against nullification to the people of South Carolina, Jackson wrote: "Seduced as you have been, my fellow countrymen, by . . . ambitious, deluded & designing men, I call upon you in the language of truth, and with the feelings of a Father to retrace your steps."

The final version of this stern message was passionate and precise. The Constitution, he insisted, did not form a league of members who could come and go according to the whim of the moment; the document forged at Philadelphia and ratified by the states was, rather, "the perpetual bond of our Union," and its power flowed from its first words, "We the People." "We have received it as the work of the assembled wisdom of the nation. We have trusted to it as to the sheet-anchor of our safety, in the stormy times of conflict with a foreign or domestic foe. We have looked to it with sacred awe as the palladium of our liberties, and with all the solemnities of religion have pledged to each other our lives and fortunes here, and our hopes of happiness hereafter, in its defense and support." In a cry from the heart that rings from the printed page, Jackson called upon the fellow citizens of his native state: "Let me not only admonish you, as the first magistrate of our common country, not to incur the penalty of its laws, but use the influence that a father would over his children whom he saw rushing to a certain ruin. In that paternal language, with that paternal feeling, let me tell you, my countrymen, that you are deluded." He was calling the prodigals home.

After a compromise on the tariff (fostered from within Jackson's administration) and a recognition that the old general implacably meant what he had said about the use of force, home they came. By resolving the showdown without bloodshed, Jackson made the preservation of the Union possible for an ensuing three decades—decades in which lovers of this nation had the opportunity to tighten what Lincoln would call "the mystic chords of memory" that, at long last, held firm in 1865.

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