A dispute between supporters and opponents of nullification over state loyalty oaths, the Test Oath Controversy erupted into violence as nullifiers sought to guarantee that only those who shared their views on state sovereignty could serve in certain state offices or as militia officers.
The Ordinance of Nullification, adopted November 24, 1832, authorized the General Assembly to require that all civil and military state officials (except legislators) “take an oath well and truly to obey, execute, and enforce” the ordinance and related legislation The legislature adopted such a test oath in December. It essentially barred conscientious Unionists, who considered nullification unconstitutional, from holding designated offices. Although the March 1833 state convention repealed the Ordinance of Nullification and thus rescinded the legal authority for the oath, it empowered the legislature to create, by a simple majority, another test oath. With the ordinance dead, any new oath would punish Unionists for having opposed the nullifiers during the crisis with the federal government.
In December 1833 the legislature passed a test oath requiring all militia officers to swear “true allegiance” to South Carolina. Because the oath’s framers clearly intended this to mean exclusive allegiance to the state, Unionists, who believed they owed allegiance to the federal government as well, could not serve in good conscience.
Unionists challenged this militia test oath. Encouraged by the new, militantly Unionist editor of the Greenville Mountaineer, William Lowndes Yancey (who ironically later became a rabid secessionist), upcountry militiamen who opposed nullification refused to obey orders of anyone swearing the oath. In addition, the refusal of Unionists Edward McCready of Charleston and James McDonald of Lancaster to take the oath led to legal disputes that ended up before the state Court of Appeals in May 1834. The Unionist majority of the three-man court, John Belton O’Neall and David Johnson, struck down the oath. Dissenting was William Harper, the court’s sole nullifier and the author of the Ordinance of Nullification, which had included the original test oath provision. Nullifiers responded by pledging to win a two-thirds majority in the fall legislative elections so they could incorporate a test oath directly into the state constitution.
During the fall 1834 legislative campaign, angry words—and more—passed between Unionists and nullifiers. In one incident, a group of unruly Charleston nullifiers—reportedly three or four hundred strong—attacked the city’s Unionist headquarters, where their opponents greeted them with buckshot. As nullifiers threatened reprisals, only the intervention of Governor Robert Hayne and former governor James Hamilton, both leading nullifiers, prevented further violence.
After an overwhelming nullifier victory at the polls, the legislature gathered in December 1834 to pass a constitutional amendment containing a new test oath. To avoid further conflict, Hamilton worked out a deal with Unionist leader James L. Petigru, his former law partner. They agreed that the General Assembly should adopt a report declaring that “the allegiance required by the oath . . . is the allegiance which every citizen owes to the State consistently with the Constitution of the United States.” That formulation satisfied most members of both parties and resolved the issue.
Freehling, William W. Prelude to Civil War: The Nullification Controversy in South Carolina, 1816–1836. New York: Harper & Row, 1965