One of the most dramatic and crucial moments in American history occurred during a birthday party held for a dead president. On 13 April 1831, Washington dignitaries gathered to celebrate the birthday of Thomas Jefferson. A dinner at the Indian Queen Hotel was followed by several speeches and more than twenty toasts. When it was Andrew Jackson's turn to speak, the president spoke just a few words—"Our Union. It must be preserved."10
Today the toast sounds innocuous—but in 1830 Jackson's brief statement shocked his audience and drew a sharp line between him and most everyone else in the room, including his own vice-president. It was a courageous and perhaps nation-saving act. But while it helped to steer the United States away from a national crisis, the crisis itself was one that Jackson had helped to create.
To understand the importance of Jackson's toast, we need to back up to the election of 1824 and the coalition of politicians that began plotting Jackson's campaign for the presidency in 1828. It was a disparate group, united less by a common ideological or policy vision than a shared interest in defeating incumbent John Quincy Adams and acquiring political power. They all agreed that the candidate most likely to defeat Adams was Andrew Jackson, but beyond that their political objectives varied. Martin Van Buren of New York believed that defeating Adams required the reconstruction of the old Virginia-New York alliance that had elected Thomas Jefferson in 1800—even though the political interests of the two regions differed sharply. John C. Calhoun of South Carolina was enticed to lend his support to Jackson, despite their considerable differences, because he recognized that his own presidential ambitions would be best advanced by serving first as Jackson's vice-president.
Expanding the popular base of the coalition—soon dubbed the Democratic Party—also required a careful balancing of diverse regional interests. The most complicated piece within this strategy was the passage of a tariff bill by Jackson's congressional supporters in 1828. Crafted by Martin Van Buren, the bill selectively offered tariff protection to a handful of goods produced in the middle part of the country—for example, hemp in Kentucky and distilled spirits in Pennsylvania—in the belief that their producers would subsequently vote for Jackson in the next election.
The strategy was not without its risks. The southerners that party leaders hoped to draw to the party opposed almost all tariffs because they raised the cost of the manufactured goods on which the region depended. Without a manufacturing sector of their own, these southern agricultural states relied upon imported goods from the northern states and Europe—goods that would now be more expensive. But Van Buren gambled that even though they opposed this Jackson-backed tariff, southerners would never vote for a New Englander like John Quincy Adams. And he was correct. Jackson carried every state south of the Potomac River in the 1828 election, despite the fact that Jacksonians promoted the tariff of 1828. But the coalition that made the victory possible was inherently fragile. United less by a common vision than a common political ambition, the coalition began to unravel almost immediately.
Tensions between President Jackson and Vice-President Calhoun surfaced on inauguration day. At the inaugural ball, Calhoun's wife snubbed Peggy Eaton, the wife of the John Eaton, Jackson's Secretary of War and close friend. The snub, soon imitated by other politicians' wives, divided Washington society—and Jackson's cabinet. But the more substantive source of tension within the coalition was the tariff of 1828. Always a political landmine, always a risky gamble on the part of those building the Democratic coalition, the tariff began to tear apart the Democratic Party within weeks of its November electoral success. And soon, it threatened to tear apart the nation as well.
Opposition to the tariff of 1828 was strongest in South Carolina. The state's economy was entirely dependent on the cotton and rice it shipped to Europe. It also imported virtually all of its manufactured goods from England. South Carolinians were wary, therefore, of any measure that might threaten this commerce. They reasoned that prices on the imported goods they needed would rise, hurting their pocketbooks. They also worried that European profits would fall as a result of the trade barriers imposed by the United States, thereby diminishing the ability of Europeans to consume southern agricultural products.
But the concerns of South Carolinians were not solely economic. They were also extraordinarily sensitive on the subject of slavery. In the coastal regions of the state, blacks outnumbered whites ten to one, and white Carolinians' resulting fears of insurrection led them to oppose anything that even hinted at disrupting the iron grip that they maintained over their slaves. A tariff that might reduce their profits and thus their power, a federal law that might lead to increased federal involvement in the state's other internal activities—all needed to be resisted.
Consequently, no South Carolina politician could survive without opposing the tariff—which meant that political expedience alone demanded that John C. Calhoun stake out a position in opposition to the measure. In 1828, he therefore secretly helped draft the Exposition and Protest that fleshed out South Carolina's opposition to the tariff and proposed the doctrine of nullification as a remedy. In Calhoun's defense, he viewed nullification as a moderate alternative to secession, which some of the more radical critics of the tariff were recommending. But even so, his secret support for nullification placed him in opposition to the policies of Andrew Jackson and the more common understanding of the Constitution and federal law.
Calhoun's theory of nullification drew upon the compact theory of the federal government advanced thirty years earlier by Thomas Jefferson. (Interestingly, both first advanced their views secretly—Jefferson in the Kentucky Resolves, and Calhoun in the Exposition and Protest.) The compact theory argued that the federal government was created by the states—it derived its authority from the states that ratified the Constitution between 1787 and 1788. Accordingly, individual states retained the authority to interpret the Constitution and to act independently to nullify or void any congressional action deemed outside the original compact.
In the Exposition and Protest, Calhoun suggested that the nullification of a congressional act would trigger a response from the rest of the states. They might, for example, call for a constitutional convention to amend the Constitution so as to clarify the constitutionality of the problematic statute. In this way, the union would be strengthened by the Constitution's clarification. But the aggrieved state always retained the right, according to Calhoun, to withdraw from the constitutional compact if it remained dissatisfied with the resolution proposed by the others.
To a certain extent, this doctrine of nullification resonated with the broader theory of states' rights—a set of ideas dating back to the constitutional ratification debates—which emphasized the Constitution's severe limitations on federal authority and the residual powers of the state governments. But for many advocates of states' rights, nullification was altogether different—it posited a different understanding of the federal government's origins and a different mode of redressing state grievances.
James Madison, for example, moved toward an advocacy of states' rights during the 1790s. He increasingly stressed that the Constitution's limits on the federal government's powers should be rigidly observed. But when nullifiers of the late 1820s tried to attach his ideas to their nullification doctrines, he emphatically denounced them. In particular, he pointed out that their compact theory rested on an inaccurate understanding of the origins of the federal government. It was not created by the states, he argued, it was created by the people. The states did not ratify the Constitution and confer upon the federal government the authority to govern; that authority was derived directly from the people through the special ratifying conventions (not the state legislatures) that were called for that expressed purpose. And consequently, while the states retained the right to question an act of the federal government, they could only overturn a federal action through the federal legislative or judicial processes created by the people in 1788.
Andrew Jackson also believed in states' rights. He believed that there were strict limits to the federal government's authority under the Constitution. He even supported the state of Georgia in its jurisdictional dispute with the federal government over the Cherokees. But he rejected Calhoun's theory of nullification. And he supported the tariff as well as the federal government's obligation to enforce all laws appropriately enacted through the legislative process.
As a practical measure, Jackson believed that the tariff was necessary to pay down the national debt and generate the revenue needed to build a strong national defense. In other words, for Jackson the tariff was primarily a revenue measure, and only secondarily a measure to protect American products. He also drew a sharp distinction between South Carolina's complaints and those from Georgia in its disputes with the federal government over Cherokee lands. Georgia challenged the long-standing position of the federal government that since the Cherokees were a sovereign people, only the federal government could exercise any authority over them through the treaty process. Georgia argued that, as a practical necessity and a matter of simple logic, state officials should possess authority over all of the territory and people within its geographical borders.
Jackson sympathized with Georgia. He believed that the traditional federal approach to Indian policy was philosophically misconceived—he believed that Georgia should have the authority to govern all of the land and people inside its borders. But Jackson believed that South Carolina's case was entirely different. This was not a jurisdictional conflict; South Carolina simply disagreed with the will of Congress. And this was the heart of the problem for Jackson. Congress had passed a law—the bill had been appropriately debated, a fair vote had been taken, and the majority had reached a decision. It was now essential that the minority accept that democratic decision.
At bottom, Jackson's opposition to nullification grew from a combination of his political philosophy and his military experience. His political ideology was rooted in a belief in the sovereignty of the people's will—and for the people's will to be sovereign there had to be a corresponding commitment to majority rule. If minorities could simply reject or withdraw from the will of the majority, the people's will would have no meaning. If nullification prevailed, there could be no law and there could be no government—only a collection of ultimately autonomous individuals. Jackson's political philosophy was complemented by his experience as a military officer. During the Creek War, when disgruntled militiamen challenged the terms of their service, he quickly concluded that armies depended on discipline. Just as governments relied on the acquiescence of minorities, armies relied on the acquiescence of subordinates. Without this acquiescence there were neither governments nor armies—there was only anarchy.
As the nullification debate unfolded between December 1828 and April 1830, Jackson grew increasingly disturbed by the nullification theories now publicly advanced by Calhoun. Jackson kept his views to himself—perhaps in hope that his fragile coalition of southerners and mid-Atlantic voters could be sustained, perhaps in hopes that the rift between himself and Calhoun could be repaired. But in January 1830, a minor debate over western lands triggered a major debate over states' rights, nullification, and the meaning of America's Union, testing Jackson' silence. In this debate, South Carolina Senator Robert Hayne voiced the arguments earlier advanced by Calhoun; in fact, since Calhoun, as vice-president, presided over the Senate and could not speak, Hayne served as his mouthpiece. In response, Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster offered a defense of the Union as more than a compact of sovereign states. Echoing Madison, Webster insisted that nation and its government was formed by the people, not the states; it was "the people's constitution, the people's government, made for the people, made by the people and answerable to the people."11
The Webster-Hayne debate placed the nullification controversy and the competing views of the Union at the center of political discourse in the capital. And for the most part, Jackson's silence was read as tacit approval for the theories of his pro-nullification vice-president. The administration paper, the United States Telegraph, edited by one of Calhoun's relatives, suggested as much. And so finally, Jackson realized that he had to break his silence—and he chose the Jefferson birthday party to do so. Given , Jackson expected the party to be a celebration of states' rights and nullification. And he was right. Speak after speaker, led by Robert Hayne, proclaimed the sovereignty of the states and dangers of an overreaching federal government. And when Jackson had heard enough, he rose and said simply, "Our Union. It must be preserved."
It was a simple statement, but everyone recognized its meaning, especially Calhoun who quickly rose to offer an equally dramatic rebuttal—"The Union, next to our liberties, the most dear."12 But the president's position was now clear, the lines were drawn, and the fragile alliance forged between Jackson and Calhoun years earlier was now irreparably broken.
With their dispute now out in the open, Calhoun worked to save his political future by blaming Martin Van Buren for Jackson's alienation. He believed that the New Yorker had turned Jackson against him, and he was soon able to exact his revenge in a dramatic manner. After Van Buren resigned as Secretary of State so that Jackson could reorganize his entire administration, Jackson named Van Buren minister to Great Britain. But when the confirmation vote in the Senate produced a tie, Calhoun, as president of the Senate, dramatically cast the tie-breaking vote denying Van Buren the appointment.
But while Calhoun had his moment, Jackson had the last say. When the Democratic Convention convened in May 1832 to name its candidates for the November elections, Jackson made sure that Van Buren replaced Calhoun on the ticket as his running mate. Jackson also had the final say on the tariff. In July 1832, Congress, with Jackson's support, passed another tariff measure. The new bill offered reduced rates (tariffs on most goods were reduced from 47% to 25%) as a concession to the tariff's critics. But in passing the tariff, Jackson and the Congress asserted both the necessity and the constitutional legitimacy of protective measures.
As most expected, the rate reductions were not enough to pacify the tariff's critics. South Carolina's government denounced the revised tariff bill and called a convention to draft an ordinance of nullification. This convention convened on 19 November and quickly passed an ordinance nullifying the tariffs of both 1828 and 1832. It declared all attempts to collect the tariff duties in the state illegal, and further threatened that any attempt on the part of the federal government to implement the tariff through the use of force would result in the secession of South Carolina from the Union. It was a bold statement—and South Carolinians, including Calhoun, rallied to the nullification cause. The vice-president's term was not due to expire until March 1833—but he resigned early, returned to his home state, and was immediately designated its new Senator in order to lead the nullification movement.
But Jackson was not to be cowed. He offered another partial concession by requesting that Congress consider a further reduction of tariff rates. But he also took measures to ensure that South Carolina knew he meant business. Earlier he had told a South Carolina congressman to tell all his friends back home that "if a single drop of blood shall be shed there in opposition to the laws of the United States, I will hang the first man that I can lay my hand on engaged in such treasonable conduct, upon the first tree I can reach."13 Now he asked Congress for a "force bill" authorizing him to deploy the United States Army in South Carolina to ensure collection of the tariffs due at Charleston.
Congress adopted Jackson's dual approach. A new tariff with reduced rates was introduced into the House by Jackson's old nemesis Henry Clay while the Force Bill was introduced in the Senate. They both passed and were signed by Jackson into law on 3 March 1833. At this point, South Carolina backed down. It did so partially because it could claim a partial victory in the reduction of the tariff, and partially because it was clear that Jackson would use the military to enforce the law. But state leaders were also sobered by the refusal of other southern states to join in their cause. Thus isolated in its position, South Carolina reconvened its special convention, and on 15 March it rescinded its ordinance of nullification. But with more pride than humor, the convention attached to this rescission an ordinance proclaiming the Force Bill null and void in the state of South Carolina.
Obviously, Jackson's resolution of the crisis in 1833 did not lay to rest the doctrines of states' rights and nullification. Nor did he prevent the South from ever threatening secession again. In 1860, South Carolina would again lead the calls for disunion, with disastrous consequences. But it is interesting to speculate about how American history might have been altered had civil war occurred thirty years earlier—when the national government was less fully formed, when the provoking issue was not territorial expansion or slavery but the tariff, and when a slaveholding southerner occupied the presidency rather than a man from Illinois who nursed the "oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free."14
One also wonders how Abraham Lincoln would have responded to southern secession without the example set by Andrew Jackson. There were other intellectuals and statesmen who spoke about "union." But Jackson was the first to argue that the Union pre-existed the Constitution. "Under the royal government we had no separate character," Jackson argued. "Our opposition to its oppressions began as united colonies. We were the United States under the Confederation, and the name was perpetuated and the union rendered more perfect by the federal Constitution."15 Lincoln would echo this view during his own national crisis three decades later.
Lincoln probably also appreciated the fact that he was not the first president to threaten the use of troops in order to prevent the dissolution of the Union. In fact, he was following a presidential precedent when he insisted that maintaining the Union through military force was an executive responsibility. He eloquently described this responsibility in 1863 as part of "the great task remaining before us . . . that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth."16 Jackson had phrased it more simply—"Our Union. It must be preserved."