As we have seen previously, beginning with the very foundation of the nation, there have been successive movements to split apart the Union, none of which had anything to do with slavery per se. In this installment we shall look at one episode which had a direct bearing on the 1860 Secession Crisis, yet which did not directly impinge on the issue of slavery versus abolition. This was the Nullification Crisis.
After the War of 1812, the country entered a period of renewed national unity, which some historians have labeled as an age of Nationalism. Although the United States had done poorly in the war, Andrew Jackson’s spectacular victory at New Orleans gave the country the perception that we had actually won it. To foster American industry, Congress had instituted tariffs to prevent foreign, mainly English, imports. The Tariff of 1828 was particularly stiff in restricting imports, earning it the sobriquet, “The Tariff of Abominations.” Many in the South opposed the tariff, but so did many New England merchants. In South Carolina in particular, opposition to this tariff was very strong. When Andrew Jackson ran for President in 1828, many in South Carolina and elsewhere hoped that Jackson would repeal the hated import duties.
When, after taking office, Jackson did not take immediate action to repeal the tariff, the radicals in South Carolina became even more militant in their opposition. Vice President John C. Calhoun resigned his office to run for the Senate, where he felt he could more effectively oppose the tariff. President Jackson did in fact pass a reduced tariff in 1832, which had the support of New England and much of the South, but it was not enough for either John C. Calhoun or the radicals in South Carolina.
Here’s where the situation grew from a simple political dispute into a potential threat to the Union. John C. Calhoun proposed the Theory of Nullification: that the individual states had the right to overrule any Federal law which that state considered unconstitutional. In essence, if accepted, nullification meant that no law passed by Congress would be able to be enforced, returning the country to the same chaos which had caused the downfall of the Confederation government. The separate and individual states were to be the ultimate arbiters of what was and was not constitutional, not the Supreme Court. Nullification flew in the face of both the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, as well as Article III, which gave the Federal judiciary the right to rule on constitutionality.
Andrew Jackson, it should be borne in mind, was a slave holder and was not opposed to reducing tariffs to the benefit of the planters and shipping merchants; but he was also a nationalist and felt a sense of betrayal by the actions of his former vice president, who was the main proponent of what was tantamount to an act of rebellion. Previously, as the controversy was still brewing, at a Democratic Party celebration in honor of Jefferson’s birthday, Jackson had famously proclaimed, “Our Federal Union: It must be preserved.”
South Carolina passed the Ordinance of Nullification in November, 1832, unilaterally repealing the Tariffs of 1828 and 1832 and the state began to make military preparations to resist the Federal government. In response, in December of 1832, President Jackson issued the “Proclamation to South Carolina” as his response to the Ordinance of Nullification, which categorically refuted Carolina’s claims.
Andrew Jackson was in a high rage at both Calhoun and the radicals in South Carolina; Congress passed the Force Bill, which authorized the President to use military force against South Carolina to compel it to submit to Federal authority. Jackson threatened to personally lead an army into the state to enforce his will and hang all the state legislators who had passed the rebellious acts. But at the same time, Congress also passed the Tariff of 1833, which substantially reduced the import duties to a level which even the radicals in South Carolina could live with.
In the end a military solution was averted and South Carolina backed down, although they continued to argue their right to nullify Federal laws. In retrospect, the Nullification Crisis was very similar to the situation which existed during the Secession Crisis of late 1860 and early 1861; but there were important differences. As in 1860, it was South Carolina that was the most militant and aggressive in seeking to undermine Federal authority; but unlike 1860, none of the other Southern states sided with Carolina in the crisis, even though there were many in the South who disliked the high tariffs.
Moreover, it was not strictly a North versus South issue, as there were many in New England who were equally unhappy about the protectionist tariffs. On another point, although South Carolina talked of defying the Federal government to enforce its “rights” in truth they were not militarily prepared to do so. In 1860, contrary to all their talk about being the offended party and of Lincoln’s aggression, South Carolina had in fact been secretly stockpiling arms and ammunition, including heavy artillery, for a decade or more.
The Nullification Crisis was not directly about slavery; it was about free trade versus protectionism. But in pursing their militant theories of states rights, Calhoun and other Carolinians of his ilk were setting the groundwork for the later Secession Crisis. Slavery was not the issue at stake in this fight, although it was lurking in the background, to be sure. The Age of Jackson was considered a period where Nationalism was triumphant over sectionalism; indeed, even the though Jackson was from Tennessee, at this time Tennessee was still considered The West and not The South, a perception which would change after he left office.
Following the Jacksonian era, the country would increasingly divide itself over the issue of slave versus free. But the notion that one or more states had the right to go their own way was not fundamentally tied to the issue of slavery; it was very much tied to whose economic interests were threatened at any given time. Or, to quote James Carville: “It’s the Economy Stupid.”
In 1860, despite what many Secessionists tried to claim in their ordinances of Secession, and which modern writers have taken out of context, Lincoln had no intention of abolishing slavery, nor did he run on that issue in the presidential election. Nor could Lincoln have abolished slavery even if he had wanted to on taking office in 1861; President Lincoln was simply too good a lawyer to think so. Slavery was built into the Constitution and it would take Constitutional amendments to abolish it—which only came about because of the hubris of the Southern States and the “Fire-Breathing” Secessionists in South Carolina and elsewhere, who goaded the South into rebellion and war.
For more esoteric and interesting aspects of the Civil War, see The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln and Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War. Coming out later this year is Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, an in depth look at the Civil War in the western theater and the famous author’s participation in it.