For this assignment for my History class we had to choose a crisis the country faced sometime before 1877. I chose the Nullification Crisis, something probably not very well known, but crucial in the years leading to the Civil War. The reading I’ve doing in this class lately has been a lot about the Compormise of 18xx, or the Such-and-Such Act, or the John Doe vs. a state decicsion. It may sound boring but it’s actually pretty interesting. How is a tariff act passed 150 years ago interesting? These types of decisions and the ensuing showdown’s between the federal government and the states set the precidents and definitions for the democracy we know today. It’s important to understand that the way democracy works today didn’t just get that way after the last shots of the Revolution were fired. It had to develope and mature. It’s also important to understand how “sectional” the nation was in the antebellum (pre-Civil War) years. If you lived in Virgina, Virgina was your home first, not the United States of America. This attitude was especially prevelent in the South. Prior to the Civil War, no crisis reflected this more than the Nullification Crisis.
1) What was the controversy?
The controversy was nullification. Nullification is an act by which a state will nullify or invalidate a federal law within its borders that it deems unconstitutional.
2) Why was it controversial? [At least a paragraph]
Nullification was controversial because it asserted the states’ power over the federal government. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison had first conceived of the idea of nullification in their Kentucky and Virgina Resolutions, written secretly in 1798. The resolutions were written in response to the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts of that same year. In essence, the resolutions stated that the federal government was a compact among the states, thus the states had the final say on what laws were unconstitutional and could then nullify them. This however was not the major controversy of nullification. That would come in the late 1820’s and early 1830’s when South Carolina would attempt to nullify the Tariff of 1828.
3) What were the opposing views and what groups represented those views? [At least a paragraph for each view]
Planters in the south, especially South Carolina, were enraged over the Tariff of 1828, which they called the Tariff of Abomination, as they saw it as protecting the manufacturers of the Northern states at the expense of the South. They feared retaliatory tariffs in foreign markets that were primary importers of Southern foodstuffs as well as raised prices on imported manufactured goods from Europe. The new, less protectionist Tariff of 1832, signed into law by President Andrew Jackson, did little to assuage the anger of South Carolina and John Calhoun, Jackson’s vice president and a South Caronlinan, urged nullification of the tariff…annonymously.
Jackson, though not a die-hard tariff-ist, refused to allow South Carolina to flout the federal government and declared that South Carolina “stood on the brink of insurrection and treason.” He sent a small fleet of ships off the coast of Charelston and threatened to collect the tariff duties by force if necessary. In early 1833 Congress passed the Force Bill authorizing the President to do just that. The crisis was finally cooled when Henry Clay drew up a compromise tariff that both sides could agree to. It is often called, aptly, the Compromise Tariff.
4) What do you think?
While the Tariff of 1828 may well have been protectionist and more favorable to the North, nullification set a dangerous precedent. It was a key element of the states rights/federal government debate and layed the ground work for secession and the Civil War. It should have come as no surprise that South Carolina was the first state to secede.