Nullification Crisis for APUSH
About the Author: Christopher Averill has taught AP® US History for 27 years and been actively involved in APUSH® grading for 22 years. Christopher has served as an APUSH® exam reader, table leader, exam leader, and question leader. Christopher was integral in establishing the AP® Teacher Best Practices Workshops at the annual AP® US History reading. He has been endorsed by the College Board as an AP Consultant since 1999 and has conducted numerous AP single-day workshops as well as Teaching and Learning Seminars. Starting in 2010 he began a four year term on the AP® US History Test Development Committee. Additionally, he was a Faculty Consultant editor for the 15th edition of the Alan Brinkley American History textbook.
The Nullification Crisis (1832-1833)
The Nullification Crisis of the early 1830s was the result of a conflict between the Jackson Administration and the state of South Carolina over the question of federal tariffs. The state of South Carolina refused to enforce the federal tariff of 1832. The state nullified (voided) the tariff with its Nullification Ordinance. President Jackson declared this state action unconstitutional in his Nullification Proclamation, sent troops to reinforce the fort in Charleston, and worked through the Compromise Tariff of 1833. Following these actions, South Carolina revoked its Nullification Ordinance.
Fundamentals of Freedom
In 1798 and 1799, Jefferson and Madison had vehemently refused to uphold the Alien and Sedition Acts. These acts were passed in an attempt to stop opposition to the undeclared war against France. Jefferson and Madison believed these federal laws directly violated the First Amendment right of free speech. Thus, the two founding forefathers wrote and supported the Kentucky and Virginia Resolves. These resolutions established the “state compact theory” and the idea of state nullification. The state compact theory held that the states created the federal government through the ratification process to pass the U.S. Constitution. Thus, state governments could void or nullify a federal law that was unconstitutional or despotic in nature. State governments could, in these instances, interpose themselves between the federal government and the citizens of a state to prevent tyranny by the federal government. Though these resolutions did not directly nullify the Alien and Sedition Acts, they did establish the constitutional principles that the states’ rightists would use to justify their position against federal government over-reach. These principles were used by South Carolina during the Nullification Crisis of 1832-33.
The state compact theory held that the states created the federal government through the ratification process to pass the U.S. Constitution. Thus, state governments could void or nullify a federal law that was unconstitutional or despotic in nature.
State’s Rights in 1828
The Tariff of 1828 increased the tariff rates to approximately 45% on imports. While these tariffs helped to protect the northern manufacturers, they increased the cost of manufactured goods tremendously for the southern plantation owner. Thus, southerners almost unanimously opposed federal tariffs for they favored the North at the expense of the South. John C. Calhoun had anonymously penned the South Carolina Exposition and Protest to object to this tyrannical tariff. Calhoun stated that the original 13 states had created a compact to create a federal government when they ratified the U.S. Constitution in 1787-88. Thus, states could nullify (void) federal laws that were objectionable. Though South Carolina did not nullify the 1828 tariff, they did nullify the 1832 tariff because it did not adequately reduce tariff levels. This was the first time that a state had ever directly refused to enforce a federal law.
Calhoun stated that the original 13 states had created a compact to create a federal government when they ratified the U.S. Constitution in 1787-88. Thus, states could nullify (void) federal laws that were objectionable.
The Issue of Crisis… Taxes
South Carolina issued the Nullification Ordinance at the Columbian Convention in the summer of 1832. This ordinance stated that as of January 1st, 1833, the state of South Carolina would no longer collect the federal tariffs within their ports or borders. President Jackson immediately sent additional federal troops to Charleston in case of war for some South Carolinians were talking about secession from the union. Additionally, federal revenue ships were sent to collect the federal tariffs.
The Nullifcation Ordinance of 1832 stated that as of January 1st, 1833, the state of South Carolina would no longer collect the federal tariffs within their ports or borders.
President Jackson then issued his Nullification Proclamation that declared state nullification an invalid Constitutional Interpretation. Congress also passed the Force Bill (“Bloody Bill”) that empowered the president to use all means necessary to quell the uprising in South Carolina. Thus, with the president and Congress illustrating resolve to use force to make a state comply to federal law and South Carolina’s refusal to concede their principles, it appeared that a war might break out. In the end, a compromise tariff between Jacksonian Democrats and National Republicans was pushed through Congress. This Tariff of 1833 included a 10% gradual reduction of rates over a period of eight years. This resolved the immediate issue and South Carolina rescinded their Nullification Ordinance. However, they nullified the Force Bill in an attempt to keep the principle of state nullification alive. This was a very large victory for President Jackson, but was an opening salvo of many more menacing issues revolving around the concept of nullification and states’ rights.
President Jackson then issued his Nullification Proclamation that declared state nullification an invalid Constitutional Interpretation.
Crisis in Context
The conflict between federal government powers and state government powers ended with the passage of the U.S. Constitution. Imbedded in the Constitution is the concept of Federalism, the division of powers between the federal government and the state government. In Article 1, Section 8, there are 17 enumerated powers that are the specified powers of the federal government. Amendment 10, however, gives all powers not delegated to the federal government to the states and the people. But the power of the federal government can be expanded if “necessary and proper” to the functioning of government.
Amendment 10, however, gives all powers not delegated to the federal government to the states and the people.
This duality served the purpose of flexibility for the future generations and a system of power sharing. However, if the federal government were perceived to have over-reached its power constraints, the Constitution did not have a mechanism to check this abuse. This is where states developed their belief that they were the final arbiters of federal tyranny. This was the inception of the concept of the state power theory and nullification.
However, if the federal government were perceived to have over-reached its power constraints, the Constitution did not have a mechanism to check this abuse.
Challenges to Continuity
The idea that states can check federal power was held amongst many citizens and state governments throughout the Antebellum Period. There were numerous historical events that pitted state powers vs. federal powers. Beginning with the Kentucky and Virginia Resolves in 1798 and 1799, the state compact theory was created in defiance of apparent federal violations of citizens’ civil liberties in the Alien and Sedition Acts. In the Missouri Debate of 1819, southern states’ rightists claimed that the federal government could not prohibit slavery from entering newly created states in the West.
The idea that states can check federal power was held amongst many citizens and state governments throughout the Antebellum Period.
The trend continued with the South Carolina Tariff Crisis of 1832 when the state of South Carolina defied a federal law and stopped collecting a federal tariff. Even northerners at times waved the banner of states’ rights. Following the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, several northern states considered the anti-slavery position that this federal law should be nullified. The ultimate test case of state power vs. federal power involved the question of secession as seen in the Civil War of 1861-8165.
The ultimate test case of state power vs. federal power involved the question of secession as seen in the Civil War of 1861-8165.
The early 19th century belief that states were the final arbiters of federal tyranny ended with the Civil War. Following the northern victory, nullification as backed by the state compact theory was dead and buried. The change to the concept of Federalism was irreversible. The federal government would be the final arbiter of its own power. With the passage of the 14th Amendment of 1868 which guaranteed that all citizens be equally treated under the law, federal authority now extended far in to every state within the borders of the United States.
Following the northern victory, the federal government would be the final arbiter of its own power.
There was, however, an attempt for rebirth of the antebellum principle of nullification in the 1950s and 1960s. It was done by some southern states in response to the federal government expanding civil rights protections to African-Americans. Following the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision that separating the races in schools was inherently unequal and that schools needed to desegregate, over 100 Congressmen and Senators issued the Declaration of Constitutional Principles. This document claimed that the federal government had no authority over public schools and that this was the sole domain of state and local governments. Additionally, in 1963 Governor George Wallace reintroduced the idea of state interposition as professed in the Virginia and Kentucky Resolves. He stood squarely in the doorway of the University of Alabama and prevented two black students from attending classes. Gov. Wallace claimed that he, as the governor, represented the people of Alabama and that they did not want the university integrated. Thus, he was blocking the over-reach of federal courts and the executive branch. Though Gov. Wallace backed down and had no legal standing whatsoever to back his position, it showed at least temporarily the reappearance of the antebellum constitutional principle of states’ rights superseding federal authority.