Liberty and Union, Now and Forever
In 1828, as the administration of John Quincy Adams drew to a close, Congress passed the latest in a long series of tariff laws designed to foster American manufacturing industries by levying a hefty duty on manufactured goods imported from abroad. These laws were warmly embraced by the rapidly industrializing Northeast, but they were deeply resented in the South. The southern economy thrived on trade in raw materials, such as rice, indigo, and cotton. Among the South’s best customers were the nations of Europe, especially England, which would buy the raw goods, turn them into manufactured products (such as fine fabric), and export them to the United States. If tariffs made it too costly for Americans to buy European goods, then Europe would have reduced need for the South’s raw materials, and the region’s export business would dry up.
Southerners called the 1828 measure the “Tariff of Abominations.” Led by John C. Calhoun, U.S. Senator from South Carolina, Southerners charged that the act was both discriminatory in economic terms and unconstitutional. Calhoun wrote the South Carolina Exposition and Protest in 1828, arguing that the federal tariff could be declared “null and void” by any state that deemed it unconstitutional.
Calhoun could point to an impressive precedent for his bold position. Two founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, had introduced the concept of nullification when they wrote the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions of 1798, which declared that the Alien and Sedition Acts violated the Bill of Rights. But a major showdown over the Tariff of Abominations was temporarily deferred by the 1828 election of Andrew Jackson, who pledged tariff reform. Southerners, however, were soon disappointed by the limited scope of Jackson’s reforms, and when the Tariff Act of 1832 was signed into law, South Carolina called a convention. On November 24, 1832, the convention passed an Ordinance of Nullification forbidding collection of tariff duties in the state.
Calhoun gambled that Jackson’s loyalty as a “son of the South” would prompt him to back down on the tariff. But Jackson responded on December 10 with a declaration upholding the constitutionality of the tariff, denying the power of any state to block enforcement of a federal law, and threatening armed intervention to collect duties. To show that he meant business, Jackson secured from Congress passage of a Force Act, which might well have ignited a civil war right then and there. However, the same year that the Force Act was passed, 1833, also saw passage of a compromise tariff. Although Calhoun’s South Carolina stubbornly nullified the Force Act, it did accept the new tariff, which rendered nullification moot. Civil war was averted—for the time being—but the theory of nullification remained a profound influence on Southern political thought and provided a key rationale for the breakup of the Union less than three decades later.