The crisis, which began as a dispute over federal tariff laws, became intertwined with the politics of slavery and sectionalism. Led by John C. Calhoun, a majority of South Carolina slaveholders claimed that a state had the right to nullify or veto federal laws and secede from the Union.
During the nullification crisis of 1828 to 1834, South Carolina planter politicians formulated a new brand of slavery-based politics that would culminate in the formation of the southern confederacy. The crisis, which began as a dispute over federal tariff laws, became intertwined with the politics of slavery and sectionalism. Led by John C. Calhoun, a majority of South Carolina slaveholders claimed that a state had the right to nullify or veto federal laws and secede from the Union. Nullification and secession, according to Calhoun, were the reserved rights of the states and therefore constitutional. Calhoun’s constitutional theories and the overtly proslavery discourse of the nullifiers laid the political and ideological foundation for southern nationalism.
The passage of the federal tariff law of 1828 signaled the rise of the nullification controversy in South Carolina. In his famous South Carolina Exposition, which was voted down by the General Assembly, Calhoun claimed that federal import duties were actually a tax on the nation’s main exporters, southern planters. Unlike free traders, who opposed the tariff or protective duties in the interest of all consumers, nullifiers claimed that the tariff hurt the South in particular. And they linked their opposition to the tariff to a proslavery position by arguing that northerners intended to interfere with the institution of slavery by impoverishing the South. Calhoun argued that nullification or state interposition would establish a constitutional precedent that would safeguard the interests of the slaveholding minority in a democratic republic. His theory of nullification innovatively combined the antidemocratic sensibility of the Federalists with the states’ rights legacy of the Jeffersonians. Calhoun’s justification of nullification and secession as constitutional rights of the state also went beyond traditional states’ rights doctrine as they were based on an unprecedented notion of absolute state sovereignty. Most old states’ righters, including James Madison, condemned nullification as an extraconstitutional and un-republican theory as it was not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution and because it subverted the cardinal principle of republican government, majority rule.
Calhoun’s lieutenants in South Carolina, James Hamilton, Robert Hayne, and George McDuffie, formed the States Rights and Free Trade Party to implement nullification after Calhoun’s break with President Andrew Jackson became final. Most of the Calhounites had been nationalists in state politics prior to the tariff controversy. Like Calhoun, their politics somersaulted from one of qualified nationalism to unqualified sectionalism. Older states’ rights leaders such as William Smith, John Taylor, and David Rogerson Williams helped to form the opposition Union Party, which also contained Jacksonian Democrats such as Joel Poinsett and Benjamin Perry, and staunch unionists such as James L. Petigru. While the nullifiers gained many adherents in the state’s large black belt that encompassed the lowcountry and the lower Piedmont, the base of the Union Party lay in the nonplantation northwestern districts of the state. In order to call a state convention to nullify the federal tariff laws of 1828 and 1832, nullifiers launched a campaign that emphasized sectionalism, the defense of slavery, and opposition to majority rule. Unionists on the other hand appealed to loyalty to the Union and the American experiment in republican government. They also criticized the undemocratic stranglehold of the lowcountry elite on state government. The nullifiers gained the upper hand as they had the support of a majority of the slaveholding planter class that dominated the state’s government. Unionists lost the closely contested state legislature elections of 1832. The nullifiers’ victory allowed them to dominate the malapportioned General Assembly. Having gained a two-thirds majority in the legislature, nullifiers proceeded to call a convention and enact an ordinance of nullification and oaths of allegiance to the state in order to implement nullification in defiance of federal law.
Upon nullification, however, South Carolina found itself politically isolated in the nation. Even most southern states refused to follow her lead. In a proclamation against nullification, President Jackson endorsed the vision of a perpetual and democratic Union and challenged the constitutionality of nullification and secession, creating an important precedent for Lincoln. Like his proto-Whig rivals Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, Jackson condemned nullification as disunionist. The president also secured the passage of the Wilkins Act, which gave him powers to implement federal tariff laws in South Carolina. Most southern states remained loyal to the party of Jackson, but some prominent members of the slaveholding chivalry–especially in Georgia and Virginia–sympathized with the nullifiers and were wary of Jackson’s new nationalism. In the end Calhoun cooperated with Clay to secure the passage of the compromise tariff law of 1833 in Congress.
The state convention rescinded its ordinance of nullification but issued another ordinance nullifying the Wilkins Act, which nullifiers referred to as the Force Bill. The controversy continued in the state, however, as Unionists opposed the new oaths of allegiance enacted by nullifiers. Unionist argued that “test oaths” were unrepublican, as they would stymie freedom of opinion and political dissent in the state. The state court of appeals also declared the oaths unconstitutional, leading some nullifiers to advocate the abolition of the court, which they succeeded in doing in 1835. A compromise reached between leading nullifiers and Unionists, stating that an oath of allegiance to the state was consistent with the loyalty to the U.S. Constitution, finally brought the crisis to an end in South Carolina in 1834. The aftermath of nullification proved fatal to the Unionists, and Calhoun’s political machine in South Carolina dominated state politics until his death.
Nullification crystallized South Carolina’s early ideological commitment to slavery and southern nationalism. The politics of slavery and separatism inaugurated by nullifiers checked democratic reform and prevented the growth of a two-party system in the state, making South Carolina exceptional even in the context of southern politics. The Carolina doctrine presented an alternative to Jacksonian democracy and party system in the South and finally triumphed when most of the southern states seceded from the Union in 1860–1861.
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