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Back-stabbing, power-hungry leaders? Check.
Lurid tales of deceit and romance? Check.
Threats of civil war and chaos? Check.
Welcome to the reign of Andrew Jackson, hardscrabble frontier guy, hero of the Battle of New Orleans, and charismatic seventh president of the United States. Game of Thrones has got nothing on the Jacksonian Era.
And the Nullification Crisis encapsulated all the shifting alliances, slandering, treachery, and strongman tactics that characterized Jackson's term in office, which, by popular demand, was renewed for a second season.
In 1832, South Carolina, who'd just about had it with Jackson and his heavy-handed policies, decided to nullify the Tariffs of 1828 and 1832. They thought these tariffs would be devastating to the economy of the South by making manufactured goods more expensive and decreasing British demand for Southern cotton. Besides, they thought, it was a massive federal overreach into the economic affairs of their sovereign state.
The South Carolina legislature, led by Jackson's turncoat ex-VP John C. Calhoun, passed an "Ordinance of Nullification" which declared the tariff unconstitutional and more or less said, "We're not gonna pay it. You can't make us, and if you try to make us, well, make our day—we'll secede from the Union. Oh, and don't even think about appealing this to the Supreme Court."
Jackson responded with his Proclamation Regarding Nullification. It was one of the biggest state v. feds showdowns in U.S. history up to that point. Jackson was angry at the defiant South Carolina, and, well…you wouldn't like him when he's angry. Who dares threaten the Union? They should have known that you don't want to get on the wrong side of the "hero of New Orleans".
Jackson couldn't let this Ordinance stand and risk having the Union be torn apart. Congress had debated the tariff, passed it fair and square, and that was that. South Carolina couldn't be allowed to challenge it, because then every state would feel free to ignore laws it didn't happen to like.
What was the Union, some kind of club that you could feel free to quit if you didn't like its rules? No way.
Jackson's Proclamationleft no doubt where he stood on the matters of nullification and secession. In a document that could have been written in ALL CAPS, he tore apart South Carolina's argument point by point, implored them to see the ridiculousness of their claims, and warned about dire consequences if they went through with their foolish plans: an ideal nation torn apart; total chaos; human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria.
Jackson stormed, implored, and threatened. He warned the errant state that he would use every method at his disposal—and he mentioned about a zillion times that he was the president, elected by all the people—to enforce the tariff and keep the Union intact. But he said he was sure it wouldn't come to that; South Carolina, that great defender of freedom during the Revolution, would see the wisdom of obeying federal laws and avoiding disunion.
But, uh, just in case, Jackson pushed a bill through Congress authorizing him to send troops to South Carolina to enforce the tariff and put down the rebellion.
Alarmed by the idea of armed tax-collectors descending on their peaceful state and possibly upsetting their happy slaves, South Carolina—after making a fuss—eventually backed down. A compromise tariff was passed in 1833 that lowered taxes, and they agreed to pay it.
Jackson accomplished two things in his aggressive stare-down of South Carolina.
But it didn't solve the South's belief that their God-given rights had been violated—it just kicked that can down the road for a few decades. Jackson even admitted that although he won this round, the South would find another issue to get up in arms about.
He guessed it would be slavery.
He guessed right.
In 1860, South Carolina threatened to secede over the issue of slavery.
And this time…they did.
Walk in to a Starbucks in California with a handgun tucked into your jeans and you could find yourself surrounded by cops. Do the same in Arizona, and the barista will ask, "What can I get for you today?" Live in Wisconsin and left your wallet at home on the way to the polls? Too bad—can't vote until you show photo ID. Next door in Minnesota, though, no prob.
States have control over lots of things—and we're not just talking guns and voting procedures. "Death with dignity" statutes, speed limits, recreational and medical marijuana, state income taxes, where you can buy alcohol…the federal government lets the states decide these—and many other—things for themselves.
But there are times when the feds decide that an issue can't be left up to the states because a law violates the Constitution. We're talking things like like segregation in public schools or marriage equality. This can lead to epic states' rights showdowns, like when President Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne Division marching down the streets of Little Rock, Arkansas, to forcibly desegregate Central High School.
The Nullification Crisis was one of those showdowns.
The argument about how much power the states cede to the federal government has been going on since the founding of the nation. "Liberty," to many in Jackson's day (and ours), meant being free from federal control and not giving the government the power to pay for or regulate things like education, infrastructure, or other services. The federal overreach in passing the Tariffs of 1828 and 1832 might have been what was being debated during the nullification standoff, but the South was actually worried about the federal government destroying their whole sacred way of life: slavery, we're looking at you.
As citizens, here's something to think about: at what point, if any, is a state law so wrong or unfair that the federal government should have a say about it? Should George Wallace have had the right to block the door of the admissions office at the University of Alabama to prohibit a Black student from registering for classes? Should the federal government insist that all states prohibit concealed carry? Was it up to the Supreme Court to decide that abortion was constitutionally protected?
Spoiler alert: no one can agree on those answers.
If you're unhappy about your state laws, you can always pick up and move to another state, like Brittany Maynard, who moved from California to Oregon, which had "death with dignity" laws. If you have unremitting pain from a back injury and you want to avoid narcotic painkillers, you can move to one of the 25 states that permit medical marijuana. And if you just can't live without hunting with a ferret, you're gonna have to say b'bye to West Virginia.
If you don't want to move? Here's another idea: get out there and vote.
Nullification Crisis by the Gilder Lehrman Institute
You'll have to create a free account for this one, but the Gilder Lehman Institute is a great one-stop shop for all your American history needs.
The Real Deal
Get your hands dirty with the dust of the Library of Congress archive (Okay, so maybe you have to imagine some digital dust). Click here to fill your heart's desire with all the primary source documents you'll need on the Nullification Crisis.
The President's Lady
A film about politics, love, and intrigue—but if it's about Jackson, what else can you expect? The film covers Jackson's early life and the scandals surrounding his relationship with Rachel Robards. Who needs soap operas when you have American history?
Before there was Hamilton, there was Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, an emo-flavored rock opera about Old Hickory himself.
PBS Does It Again
This PBS documentary captures the walking contradiction that was our 7th President.
Coming Soon to a Theater Near You
There's a film in the works to be called Andrew Jackson and the Battle of New Orleans. Producers Ken and Fred Atchity, announcing the film last year, said they hoped to get Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie in major roles. Good luck with that.
The Andrew and The Donald
Comparisons between Trump and Jackson have been coming fast and furious.
The Nullification Crisis
Music? Cartoons? Nullification? What's not to love about this video?
Some teachers will try anything to make the Nullification Crisis interesting.
Painless U.S. History
This video gets down with democracy and lets in you in the ways that Jackson lastingly influenced American politics, even if a huge chunk of the country really hated his guts. It's a seriously awesome video.
A Hairy Story
How did Jackson, the "common man," legendary war hero, and brazen duelist meet his final demise? Watch this video to find out.
Shmoop's Causes of the Civil War
Watch this video on the causes of the Civil War and ask yourself, doesn't this whole mess sound a little familiar?
In 1814 We Took a Little Trip
In the 1950s, a high school principal, wanting to make history come alive, wrote a song about Andrew Jackson and the Battle of New Orleans. It became a hit record in 1959, recorded by Johnny Horton. This is the kind of stuff your grandparents called pop music.
Having pretty much invented the spoils system, Jackson deserved a monument to it. Well, a cartoon, anyway.
King Andrew the First
Nullies felt that Jackson ruled like a tyrant.
Andrew Jackson, the Despot
One step too far or just the right height?
Jackson at his Most Presidential
The official White House portrait.
These will be historical artifacts in a decade.
Just Zip It
Henry Clay couldn't stand to hear one more word out of Jackson about the Second Bank of the United States, so he took matters into his own hands and sewed up his mouth in this political cartoon.