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Calhoun's Exposition was Lex Luthor to the Jackson Proclamation's Superman. Batman to his Joker. Wolverine to his Magneto.
Get the picture?
If Jackson and Calhoun were actually superheroes/villains, then the "Exposition and Protest" would be Calhoun's secret weapon. And it was actually a secret for a while.
Calhoun wrote this document, which laid out the entire reason for nullifying the Tariff of Abominations, without even letting Jackson know. Talk about backstabbing—at the time, he was running for the office of Jackson's VP, for Pete's sake.
Anyway, Calhoun sympathized with South Carolina's position on the new tariff, so he decided to write up this document, laying out the rationale for disobeying federal law. First, he said that Congress could not authorize an extension of federal power, and this tariff was an extension of federal power. Ergo, the tariff was unconstitutional. It also violated the Constitution by favoring one region (the north) over another and wasn't really necessary to keep the government running. He explained that this tariff would destroy the economy of the south and divest all the states of their rights.
Then Calhoun laid out why nullification was a legitimate political act. (Check out our "Kentucky and Virginian Resolutions" section for where Calhoun found his justifications.) Basically, Calhoun argued that the Constitution was an agreement between the states, so the states had the right to decide if a law was Constitutional. If they decided it wasn't, they then had the authority to nullify it within their state limits. Q.E.D.
The exposition didn't have the force of law—it was a statement of principles—although thousands of copies were printed and handed out among the southern states. It was just the opening shot; the real battle began when South Carolina issued its Ordinance of Nullification. But Calhoun was the catalyst for what followed.
Both Calhoun's Exposition and Jackson's Proclamation were equally adamant in their views of state vs. federal sovereignty, respectively. Jackson used more exclamation points, however, and that's gotta count for something.
You know how when you are really little, you listen to your parents without questioning too much? Sure, there's a complaint here and there, but their authority was iron-clad. Then you hit your preteens/teens and you start pushing those buttons and pushing limits.
That's the United States around 1798.
When the colonies defeated the British and became an independent nation, they did so without any example to follow. They just thought to themselves, "What can be so hard about getting several sovereigns states together under the authority of a federal government and have it stay true to democratic values? Easy-peasy."
No, not so much.
It didn't take long for those in charge to disagree about how much power the federal government should have in relation to the states. The first signs of teenage rebellion arose after the Alien and Sedition Acts were passed in 1798. These expanded the federal government's power on the topic of immigration and gave the president the power to imprison and deport. But did the federal government have the right to do that?
Thomas Jefferson and James Madison didn't think so. Abuse of power, they said. Unconstitutional, they said. Well, they didn't say it. They secretly wrote resolutions on behalf of the states of Kentucky and Virginia, who didn't want to enforce the law.
This would be the first time that the concept of nullification pops up in U.S. history. John C. Calhoun was reading this like mad crazy when he wrote his Exposition. Jefferson and Madison believed that the Constitution granted the federal government very limited powers and that the Union existed purely as something that the states created and agreed on. Not the other way around.
Eventually the Alien and Sedition Acts fell out of fashion and no other states really wanted to jump on the nullification bandwagon with Kentucky and Virginia. But the idea was planted, and people like Calhoun would take notice.
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, just like the Nullification Crisis, was created in an atmosphere defined by North/South animosities and questions about the nature of federal power. But as if it was in some sort of bizarro United States, the the South wanted stronger federal control and the nullies lived in the North.
Slaveholders owned slaves as property—very expensive property—and when any of them escaped, slavers wanted them back. And who did the government-hating, states' rights loving Southerners turn to? The federal government. As U.S. territory expanded, a compromise was made in Congress. Basically, an agreement was reached where slavery would not expand into new states, but also that the south could enforce even stricter rules on their own slaves.
This became known as the Compromise of 1850, and the Fugitive Slave Act was part of it. It forced runaway slaves to be returned to their master. Even if they made it all the way to Maine, they had to be returned.
But here's the kicker. States like Wisconsin and Vermont began nullifying the act, saying it was unconstitutional. Now, the nullies began arguing for the North and refused to enforce the law. Ultimately, this situation never got resolved since relations between the North and South went downhill from there. Can you say "ironic twist of events" Can you also say, "History repeats itself"?
In 1829, a Connecticut senator floated the idea of putting an indefinite limit on the sale of lands in the west and the surveying of new land. A Missouri senator protested that this was just a ploy on the part of the northeast states to keep people from moving west so they'd stay put and work in the northern factories for peanuts.
The topic of the tariff of 1828 and nullification was still on everyone's mind, and it got dragged into the discussion in the Senate. South Carolina senator Robert Hayne (probably on secret orders from John C. Calhoun) gave a speech proposing that the tariff be lowered, ditto the price of western land. He thought that all the money the government made from the high sale prices of land was creating a huge treasury with which the feds could create all kinds of mischief. Maybe they'd want to open public schools or something outrageous like that.
Enter Daniel Webster, who you certainly don't want to mess with in a debate. He got up in the face of Senator Hayne, rebutting his arguments and piling on criticism of the south. The north was interested in the welfare of the whole nation; just think of what all those federal dollars could do—build universities, roads, canals. The south was protecting its own turf, and how selfish is that? Opposing education? Ridiculous.
Plus, Webster hinted, today it's tariffs; tomorrow, who knows, you might be questioning the whole idea of the Union. By this time, visitors packed the Senate hoping to see Hayne take it to Webster. Hayne accused Webster of being a power-hungry nationalist bent on sowing division between the south and west. It was Webster who was going down the Union-destroying path. It was the states who had the right to decide what was and wasn't Constitutional, not the federal government or the Supreme Court.
This went on for a couple of days. Webster ended his speech with the famous ringing statement, "Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable" (source).
In the end, nothing really changed. The Nullies still wanted to Nullify and the Unionists still wanted to enforce the tariff. But John Quincy Adams told Martin Van Buren that he thought the debate was "the most important one that has taken place since the existence of the Government. The two doctrines are now before the nation" (source).
Probably because of his legendary skill as an orator and his victory over the Devil, most history books conclude that Webster won the debate. But recent scholarship suggests that the reaction fell predictably along party lines (some things never change), and because the North eventually won the debate (via the Civil War) they're the ones who got to write history.
The debate laid out all the issues underneath the Nullification Crisis of 1832, and foreshadowed that South Carolina indeed meant business.
The full title was The Olive Branch, or, Faults on Both Sides, Federal and Democratic. A Serious Appeal on the Necessity of Mutual Forgiveness and Harmony. Shmoop loves those 19th-century titles. But it wasn't just the title that seemed a little grandiose. Advertisers actually bragged that everyone should own at least two books: The Bible and The Olive Branch. Trust us, it's okay if you don't own The Olive Branch.
This was an odd sort of book. Carey wrote it during the War of 1812, which saw the Americans pitted against the English once again. He was an Irish immigrant, and the Irish had no particular love for the English. When he arrived in the U.S., Carey saw a bunch of sectional groups bickering over seemingly everything. He just wanted all these groups to kiss and make up so they could focus on beating on the Brits.
He compared a number of prominent Americans to dumb dogs, each chasing and fighting over different bones when they should be worried about English dog-catchers. It's actually a rather interesting argument for national unity, and one that those who exacerbated the Nullification Crisis should have paid more attention to. Big picture thinking and all that.
Ironically, Robert Hayne used ideas from the book during his debate with Webster. But instead of restating Carey's pleas for harmony, he incorporated all of the insults and name-calling into his arguments. So much for using The Olive Branch as an "olive branch."