On the Brink of Civil War… More Than Once
We have all likely heard of the American Civil War that raged from 1861-1865. However, you may not have heard of the Nullification Crisis. If you have heard of the Nullification Crisis, you may not understand the significance of it.
This war had been brewing since the founding of the country. However, what many do not realize is that America had come close to war amongst itself many times before the firing on Fort Sumter. One of those times was in the 1820-30s under President Andrew Jackson during the Nullification Crisis.
The Nullification Crisis would pit the state of South Carolina against the federal government when the southern state argued they could strike down any federal law they deemed unconstitutional as null and void.
President Andrew Jackson rightly regarded this states-rights challenge as so serious that he asked Congress to enact legislation permitting him to use federal troops to enforce federal laws in the face of nullification.
Fortunately, an armed confrontation was avoided when Congress, led by the efforts of Henry Clay, revised the tariff with a compromise bill. This permitted the South Carolinians to back down without “losing face.”
Ultimately this crisis was settled and federal laws were honored. However, this crisis showed the tensions boiling between Northern and Southern states, as well as issues of states rights, federal laws, and slavery.
Background on the Nullification Crisis
In the 19th century, industrialization took the world by storm. Industrialization had many positive effects.
Now goods could be mass produced in a factory instead of being made painstakingly by hand. The amount of time and money that this saved is immeasurable. With the innovation of machines like the Spinning Jenny, the Power Loom, and the Cotton Gin, goods were pumped out en masse making them much more affordable.
Goods could now also be made identical. If you saw, let’s say, a fetching dress that caught your eye, now you could get the exact one yourself! Before these items were one-of-a-kind, and if you didn’t have it, there was virtually no way to get it. While we could continue to explore the impacts (both positive and negative of industrialization, for there are a lot of negatives as well, that is beyond the scope of this article).
When industrialization began, it began primarily in England. The reason being they had a wealth of natural resources, rivers, harbors, etc. This made England the hub for industrialization. However, while industrialization began there, it quickly spread to the rest of the world.
The United States, specifically northern America, quickly also began to industrialize. Factories began to pop up, powered initially by water power and eventually by coal.
Industrialization Makes Cotton King
While England and the North were industrializing, the South doubled down on slavery. Fueled by the simple invention of the Cotton Gin and the growing demand for cotton in industrialized states, the Southern cotton industry boomed. The Cotton Gin allowed cotton to be picked and separated at a much faster and more profitable rate.
Places like the northern United States, England, and France had an unquenchable desire for cotton. This revitalized the slave trade there that had previously been on its way out. Legislation such as the Northwest Ordinance had been crafted to contain slavery and allow it to die of natural causes. However, what President Thomas Jefferson had not seen coming, was Eli Whitey, the inventor of the Cotton Gin, and industrialization.
The South’s economy now focused primarily around the cotton trade. The South began feeding the industrialization monster in England, France and the northern half of the Union. States, such as South Carolina, benefited greatly from this cotton boom.
Industrialization Creates Competition
Because the U.S. lagged behind England in terms of industrialization, imports from England began to threaten northern industry. The North struggled to compete with the low prices on goods, such as textiles, coming out of the nation.
This was no problem to the South, as the South profited either way. To them, all that was important was that cotton continued to be king. However, the North began to call for a tariff to protect Northern industries. A tariff is a piece of legislation that puts a tax on imported goods. The goal is to discourage the importation of goods and to instead have those goods created and sold at home.
The North would receive the help they so desperately desired from “Old Hickory” (Andrew Jackson, born in South Carolina) and his supporters in the government.
What was the Nullification Crisis
The Tariff of 1828
In 1828, a piece of legislation was created by supporters of Andrew Jackson. The goal of this legislation was to gain the presidential candidate support, primarily in the middle states, as well as the western ones.
The goal of the Tariff of 1828, was to discourage trade to England for goods such as clothing. The tariff raised the taxes on imported goods, thus raising the prices on those goods, and helping out the Northern industries struggling to compete with industrialized England.
While Northerners supported this tariff the South was outraged. The Southerners dubbed this tariff the, “Tariff of Abominations.” The cause for Southern outrage was rooted in the fact that this would discourage England from buying Southern cotton, thus threatening the South’s economy and “king cotton” itself.
The Ideology of Nullification
This tariff wasn’t only unpopular in the South, it was also unpopular in President Andrew Jackson’s own administration. Particularly amongst Vice President John C. Calhoun who would only further the Nullification Crisis. Vice President Calhoun soon created a new theory called nullification.
Nullification stated that any state in the Union could declare any federal law null and void if they deemed the law to be unconstitutional.
Robert Hayne Backs Nullification
By the turn of the decade in January of 1830, nullification had gained a new supporter in the Senate: South Carolina Senator Robert Hayne. Hayne began speaking on behalf of nullification and defending the principle (Youngdahl, 2012).
An opponent of Nullification in Congress, Daniel Webster, got up and told Robert Hayne, “It is, Sir, the people’s Constitution, the people’s Government, made for the people, made by the people, and answerable to the people. The people of the United States have declared that this Constitution shall be the supreme law. We must either admit the proposition or dispute their authority.” (The most famous Senate speech, 2020)
A Birthday Showdown
It was then that John C. Calhoun launched a plan to get President Andrew Jackson’s support for nullification. Calhoun invited Andrew Jackson to Thomas Jefferson’s birthday party in April of 1830. Calhoun believed because Jackson was born in South Carolina, he could convince him to repeal the tariff. However, he badly under estimated President Jackson and his loyalty to South Carolina.
During dinner that evening, Calhoun made a toast to states rights and the principle of nullification. When it was President Andrew Jackson’s turn to make a toast, he toasted to, “Our federal Union, it must be preserved.” Calhoun and his supporters were completely taken aback by Jackson’s stance on the Nullification Crisis.
They realized that Jackson’s loyalties lied with the federal government and the Union and not with his home state of South Carolina.
Another Tariff Passed by the Federal Government
Then, in 1832, Congress passed a second protective tariff to try to end the Nullification Crisis. The goal of this tariff was to try to calm the anger and outrage in the South and to stop the idea of nullification. However, this additional tariff did nothing of the sort and failed to calm the Nullification Crisis.
The South Carolina Legislature Applies the Principle of Nullification
It was then that the governor of the state of South Carolina called a meeting of the South Carolina legislature. They met on November 19, 1832. On November 24, they approved an ordinance of nullification that began the Nullification Crisis.
This South Carolina ordinance passed by the South Carolina convention declared both tariffs passed by Congress null and void. It also stated that they would not have to pay the federal tax on imported goods that the tariffs required. It was at this point that the nation really moved to the brink of civil war.
South Carolina also declared that if the federal government tried to force the state to comply with the tariff, they would secede from the Union and create their own nation.
The Force Bill and a Civil War Crisis
In response to the South Carolina ordinance, President Andrew Jackson called upon Congress to pass a piece of legislation called the Force Bill. This act would give President Jackson and the federal government the power to put down any rebellion with the force of the United States military.
With the Force Bill, President Jackson showed that he would not tolerate secession or nullification.
President Jackson then called upon Congress again to pass legislation to quell the outrage and tension. However, Northerners were not happy with this new piece of federal law. They were indeed outraged.
They felt that the new legislation did not do enough to help them. They also were outraged that the slave state of South Carolina used the threat of secession to blackmail the federal government into catering to their demands. South Carolina and the south also were not happy. They wanted no tariff at all.
The Great Compromiser, Henry Clay, Steps In
Henry Clay, the Great Compromiser who crafted the Missouri Compromise, then stepped in to attempt to save the day, again. However, South Carolina refused to stand down and denounce nullification and the Nullification Crisis. It was then that Calhoun and Hayne came up with a new idea to push nullification forward and further challenge the federal government.
Support for Nullification in Congress
Senator Hayne then decided to give up his seat in Congress. At the same time, the governor of South Carolina would step down. Then Hayne would take over as governor of South Carolina.
When Hayne did this, John C. Calhoun would step down as Vice President of the United States and would take Hayne’s seat as a Senator of South Carolina. This would give Calhoun the ability to use the Senate floor to give oratory in support of the Nullification Crisis and states rights.
Henry Clay Saves the Day, Again
It was at this point that Clay was able to broker a deal to bring the Nullification Crisis to a close. Clay’s goal was to satisfy both South Carolina and the federal government. Clay presented his bill to Congress on February 12, 1833. This bill pacified Calhoun and gained his support.
The bill was passed on February 26 by the lower chamber of Congress and the upper chamber on March 1. Congress also passed the Force Bill giving President Andrew Jackson the authority to use the military to put down rebellion. This piece of legislation Congress passed calmed both South Carolina and the federal government.
Jackson Makes a Statement
However, Jackson had one last statement to make, directed at South Carolina. When Jackson went to sign these two new pieces of legislation, he made sure to sign the Force Bill first. He did this to make a statement to South Carolina and the rest of the states that he would not tolerate any rebellion or secession from the Union or the Nullification Crisis.
South Carolina Backs Down and Accepts Federal Law
It was at this point that South Carolina repealed the ordinance of nullification that it had previously passed. However, South Carolina still made another act of defiance before the Nullification Crisis ended. The South Carolina legislature decided to rule the new Force Bill as null and void and showed the federal government they were still not satisfied.
Why Was the Nullification Crisis Important?
The Nullification Crisis was another step towards the Civil War. This crisis showed that there were deep sectional tensions between the slave and free states in the United States.
The Nullification Crisis also showed that there was a developing ideology in the South that states, specifically slave states, had the right to secede. They also believed that they had the right to ignore federal law if they deemed it to be unconstitutional. This ideology was one that would continue to develop during the next 20 years until it finally culminated in South Carolina seceding from the Union and a civil war taking place.
What Was the Result of Nullification? What Was the Legacy of Nullification?
The result of nullification in the short term was resolution. The Nullification Crisis nearly resulted in war amongst the states. If it had, the legacy of the crisis would be much different. However, Henry Clay managed to, for the second time, avoid this from happening. This helped solidify Henry Clay and his legacy as a compromiser.
Senator Henry Clay managed to create peace between southern states and the federal government without the use of military force. However, in the long term, this managed to be only a temporary solution, just as the Missouri Compromise was.
The Missouri Compromise was a bill that allow Missouri to join the Union as a slave state while also admitting Maine as a free state. It also outlawed slavery in the Louisiana Territory north of the 36°30′ line. However, the compromise failed to create lasting peace as issues would arise again after the Mexican-American War and the admission of California into the Union as a free state. Both the Missouri Compromise, and the Nullification Crisis, only put off civil war.
The Nullification Crisis showed in the long term that Civil War was unavoidable. President Jackson said, “I consider, then, the power to annul a law of the United States, assumed by one State, 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.”
This quote shows the growing sectional rift that was growing between North and South. The ideology of the North was the secession was unconstitutional while the South believed it to be perfectly legal. The South also believed that they had the right to go against the federal government. This is perfectly embodied in the South Carolina legislature and their ordinance of nullification.
South Carolina believed deeply that they were fighting for states rights or, as Stephen Douglas would say, state sovereignty. This belief would become further and further entrenched in southern ideology as the 19th century progressed and would ultimately culminate in a state’s right to have and move slaves. This would result in the Dred Scott decision and in a new Fugitive Slave Law. This issue of “state’s rights” would be used to justify the Civil War, specifically after the war.
However, this focus on states rights, in issues such as the Nullification Crisis, would ultimately distract from the real cause of the war: slavery. Like other issues we have discussed, such as the Missouri Compromise, these tensions arose out of the Founding Fathers inability to settle issues when they created federal law, as well as differences in the interpretation of federal law. The ambiguity of sections of the Constitution, especially as it pertained to slavery, left the door open for division.
This split, centered around slavery, would culminate in the secession crisis and the American Civil War when South Carolina and other southern states seceded from the Union (Youngdahl, 2012).
The most famous Senate speech. U.S. Senate: The Most Famous Senate Speech. (2020, September 21). Retrieved April 10, 2022, from https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/minute/The_Most_Famous_Senate_Speech.htm
Youngdahl, Richard. (Creator). (2012, December 9) #04 Nullification Crisis [Audio Podcast]. https://civilwarpodcast.libsyn.com/-04-the-civil-war-1861-1865-a-history-podcast