In the leadup to the Civil War there were several events that nearly resulted in the severance of the Union. One of the most impactful was the Nullification Crisis of 1832.
The Nullification Crisis of 1832 began when South Carolina’s state legislature “nullified” federal tariffs that negatively impacted the state. South Carolina vowed that if federal authorities attempted to enforce the tariffs in the state, secession would follow.
President Jackson responded in force, aggressively stating that federal law must be obeyed, or South Carolina must suffer the consequences of federal military action. While making active threats, Jackson also endorsed a compromise that would lower federal tariffs, thereby appeasing South Carolina.
Cooler heads prevailed with the Nullification Crisis of 1832 ending with the 1833 Compromise Tariff. Both sides were able to claim victory, though the crisis would further heighten the sectional tensions that were gripping the nation.
The crisis was unique as it brought differing interpretations of the Constitution to the forefront of American politics. Even the primary writers of the Federalist Papers (Alexander Hamilton and James Madison) defending the Constitution had differing ideas of the powers of state vs federal governments.
One interpretation of the Constitution gave states the ultimate power to approve or nullify federal law. This argument was used by South Carolina to nullify the unfavorable tariffs.
The other interpretation of the Constitution provided that federal law was only to be reviewed by the federal judiciary branch, not state governments. This process of judicial review was established by Chief Justice John Marshall in the landmark case Marbury v. Madison in 1803.
Throughout the Nullification Crisis an unlikely defender of federal power emerged: ardent states’ rights supporter President Andrew Jackson.
Without Jackson’s firm stance, the Nullification Crisis of 1832 may have ended very differently.
Background on American Tariffs
From the very beginning of the United States, tariffs, or taxes collected on imported goods, represented the primary method for the federal government to collect revenue. It is estimated that 85.2% of total federal revenues came from customs duties from 1820-1862.1
Throughout this time the United States alternated between periods of high and low tariffs, depending on the prevailing political factors.
In 1816 the first of the so-called “Protectionist Tariffs” was enacted by Congress. This tariff was primarily designed to help American businesses by raising tariffs of manufactured goods from foreign nations.
British manufactured goods were generally cheaper than their American-made counterparts. Thus, in order to level the playing field, Congress levied tariffs on foreign manufactured goods, thus leveling the playing field for American businesses.
In general, southern states opposed these protectionist tariffs, while the northern states favored them. A majority of the United States’ manufacturing capacity was located in northern states, and thus northern businesses were the primary benefactor of the tariffs.
The south primarily bought manufactured goods instead of producing them, and thus was relegated to buying at higher prices. In addition, foreign nations subjected the United States to retaliatory measures, such as higher tariffs on cotton and other agricultural goods that negatively impacted the southern economy.
The Tariff of 1816 was only meant to be temporary and was to end in 1819. However, the financial crisis caused by the Panic of 1819 led Congress to reconsider.
The tariff rates were extended in 1820 and also made permanent. The relative success of the tariffs and federal revenues they brought in led Congress to consider raising tariffs even further throughout the 1820s.
This would lead to the eventual tariff of 1828, or as it was known in the south, the “Tariff of Abominations.”
Causes of the Nullification Crisis
Historians generally agree that the 1828 tariff, among other factors, was a direct cause of the eventual Nullification Crisis of 1832 that gripped the nation.
The tariff rate on many goods more than doubled from 1816 levels sending shockwaves through the south. The southern economy was still reeling from the impact of the Panic of 1819, and southerners feared that the large raise in tariff rates would further depress the economy,2
Another cause of the Nullification Crisis may have been due to political ambition. Vice President John C. Calhoun was identified as a major proponent of the theory of nullification. He ardently promoted the idea that states had the ability to nullify any federal law they found unfavorable to their interests.
President Andrew Jackson became convinced that a cause of the Nullification Crisis was Calhoun’s ambition for more power.3 Should South Carolina and/or other states eventually secede to form their own nation, Calhoun was positioning himself to become a potential leader.
Jackson lambasted Calhoun and others as “devoid of principle” and full of “selfish personal ambition.” However, when the Nullification Crisis subsided, it was apparent that there was more than just political ambition at play.
Certainly a primary cause of the Nullification Crisis was the issue of slavery. Historian William Freehling argues that South Carolinians in particular saw themselves as the victims of tyranny from those that opposed slavery.4
After the passage of two tariffs that negatively impacted the south, it was only a matter of time before the tyranny of northern abolitionists came to destroy the institution of slavery.
While this may have been true, the feelings across the south may not have been mutual. No other state joined South Carolina in its nullification declaration, signaling that the perceived northern threat to slavery was not yet at full crisis levels as would be seen in the years prior to the Civil War.
What is the Nullification Crisis of 1832?
The Nullification Crisis of 1832 began when the Tariff of 1832 failed to lower tariffs to a rate acceptable to the state of South Carolina. In response, the South Carolina state legislature nullified the federal law, claiming it to be unconstitutional.
The crisis ascended to a new level when South Carolina threatened to secede from the Union if federal authority attempted to force the collection of tariffs for the law the state had nullified.
In the Nullification Crisis, the United States had its first true threat of dissolution. While prior events such as the publications of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions in 1798 and the Hartford Convention of 1814 had produced discussions around the potential of secession, this was the first threat actively carried out.
President Andrew Jackson was an unlikely antagonist to nullification proponents. The ardent states’ rights supporter was expected to align with the view that states had ultimate power over the acceptance and enactment of federal law.
Jackson instead aggressively denounced the action, believing that to nullify a federal law would inevitably lead to secession. To Jackson, any threat to the Union must be swiftly dealt with. His thoughts were summed up at an 1830 dinner speech where he toasted, “Our federal union, it must be preserved.”
Jackson made preparations for war and aimed to strum up patriotic support against South Carolina. He wrote, “Nullification… means insurrection and war, and the other states have a right to put it down…”3
South Carolina too made preparations to defend itself from federal incursions. The crisis appeared to be at a tipping point, with a looming deadline of February 1, 1833 that the nullification of the tariffs was to take effect.
How was the Nullification Crisis Resolved?
While Andrew Jackson was preparing military action against South Carolina, he was also simultaneously working with members of Congress on a compromise tariff that would further reduce tariff levels in South Carolina’s favor.
Neither side wanted conflict, but South Carolina was unwilling to back down unless it got more favorable terms.
Congress members such as Henry Clay and Daniel Webster negotiated with John C. Calhoun to develop a compromise tariff. As negotiations were progressing, South Carolina postponed the implementation of the nullification act to give a deal more time.
Jackson’s former Proclamation to the People of South Carolina on December 10, 1832 made it clear he was capable and ready to use military force to put down the radicals and preserve the Union, but he certainly preferred to avoid the drastic action if possible.
Cooler heads prevailed as on March 1, 1833, Congress passed the Compromise Tariff of 1833. South Carolina accepted the new tariff which gradually lowered tariff rates over a period of ten years down to the original Tariff of 1816 levels.
Through the 1833 Tariff, the Nullification Crisis had been resolved.
Just in case the Compromise tariff had been rejected by the South Carolina legislature, Jackson pressured Congress to pass the Force Bill on the same day. The bill encountered fierce resistance, but passed on a 32-1 vote in the Senate, with over a dozen senators abstaining.5
The Force Bill authorized President Jackson to use military force against South Carolina if federal law regarding the collection of tariffs was not followed.
The result of the Nullification Crisis allowed both sides to claim victory. President Jackson could claim he preserved the Union and upheld the ultimate authority of federal law.
South Carolina backed down on its nullification ordinance, though it got what it really wanted with the reduction of the hated tariffs.
While the Nullification Crisis resolved itself without bloodshed, it was just one of many events that ultimately would set the stage for the eventual Civil War.
To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.
1) U.S. Federal Government Revenues: 1790 to the Present, report, September 25, 2006; Washington D.C.. (https://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc815472/), University of North Texas Libraries, UNT Digital Library, https://digital.library.unt.edu; crediting UNT Libraries Government Documents Department.
2) Pease, Jane H., and William H. Pease. “The Economics and Politics of Charleston’s Nullification Crisis.” The Journal of Southern History, vol. 47, no. 3, 1981, pp. 335–362. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2207798.
3) Latner, Richard B. “The Nullification Crisis and Republican Subversion.” The Journal of Southern History, vol. 43, no. 1, 1977, pp. 19–38. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2207553.
4) Bergeron, Paul H. “The Nullification Controversy Revisited.” Tennessee Historical Quarterly, vol. 35, no. 3, 1976, pp. 263–275. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/42623589.
5) Ericson, David F. “The Nullification Crisis, American Republicanism, and the Force Bill Debate.” The Journal of Southern History, vol. 61, no. 2, 1995, pp. 249–270. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2211577.