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Was passing a tariff really so bad that South Carolina threatened to leave the union over it?
The Nullification Crisis just blew the lid off arguments that had been brewing since the Revolution. See, among the framers of the Constitution, there'd been an ongoing divide between Federalists—those who believed in a strong central government—and people who thought that this government would be a danger to individual liberties and states' rights. The Constitution laid out the powers granted to the federal government; any other powers were retained by the individual states. The need to raise taxes, provide for national defense, and strengthen the national economy were all seen as reasons to support a strong federal government. Plus, how could the states, with their huge cultural and economic differences (free vs. slave states, agrarian vs. manufacturing economies) be expected to play well together without a central government setting some playground rules? There were plenty of compromises in the Constitution, but no state got exactly what it wanted.
Arguments about slavery were another subtext for the events leading up to the Nullification Crisis. Ideas about freedom and democratic rights built into the Declaration of Independence had always put pressure on the slave system, even though the architect of the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson, was a slave owner himself. How could a country be both a symbol of freedom and one of the largest slave-holding societies at the same time? As the U.S. expanded west, the question arose of whether or not slavery should be permitted in these territories, too. This question would eventually spark the outbreak of a full-blown civil war—but that's a story for another Learning Guide.
During the 1800s, the U.S. economy was moving from being primarily agrarian (growing stuff) to industrial (making stuff). In the early part of the century, wars in Europe had resulted in trade blockades, so England had been flooding the U.S. market with low-price materials. The U.S. government had been issuing a series of tariffs—taxes on imported goods—in order to protect U.S. manufacturing, which was largely located in the North.
Tariffs made foreign goods more expensive, protecting the industrial economies of the North and West who were manufacturing the same stuff, but making life more expensive for consumers in the South, whose economy wasn't in such great shape to begin with. Plus, tariffs on exported Southern cotton were making British customers look for cheaper alternatives, leaving Southerners with even less money to buy those expensive made-in-the-USA goods.
Either way, tariffs were bad news for the South.
(BTW, if you're thinking that this argument sounds pretty familiar, you're right. Free trade vs. protectionism was a huge issue even as recently as the 2016 presidential election.)
So what does this have to do with Andrew Jackson and the Proclamation Regarding Nullification?
Let's rewind to the presidential election of 1824. Four candidates, all from the same party, were in the race.
Son of the South Andrew Jackson, re-elected to the Senate from Tennessee, was the odds-on favorite to win that election. He was a decorated war hero from the South and seen as a "man's man," not a professional politician. He was a supporter of slavery and a strong states' rights advocate. Jackson's main competitor was John Quincy Adams, the son of the second President of the United States and the Secretary of State under President James Monroe.
The two couldn't be more different: the career politician from the closest thing the U.S. had to an aristocratic family vs. a frontier-born populist and war hero. They hated each other from the get-go. Three other candidates competed for the office, including Henry Clay.
Jackson won the popular vote as well as the electoral vote, but only in a plurality, not a majority. That outcome meant that the House of Representatives got to choose who'd be the next president. Henry Clay, one of many politicians who thought Jackson was a reckless, hotheaded know-nothing, got together with John Quincy Adams and struck a deal to secure Adams' seat in the White House.
This act came to be known as the "Corrupt Bargain" by Jackson supporters, who thought that Clay made sure Adams got into office in exchange for being named Secretary of State. Which he was. Jacksonians saw the election as being stolen from the up-by-his-bootstraps southerner by the privileged elites of the north.
The fight between Jackson and Adams was on big time, setting up the nastiest sleazefest of them all: the election of 1828 a.k.a. the birth of the modern political campaign. Well, maybe more recent elections have been sleazier, but to be fair, they didn't have Twitter in 1828.
The aftermath of the War of 1812 was known as the Era of Good Feelings. It more or less coincided with the tenure of President James Monroe. The country was in a good mood and pulled together with national pride about having held their own against the British. The real reason for the good feelings was that, as a result of the War, the Federalist Party disappeared and there was only one political party: the Democrat-Republicans a.k.a. Jeffersonian Republicans a.k.a. Republicans.
But certain factions within the Party thought that their colleagues were getting a little too nationalist. John Quincy Adams supported federal spending on infrastructure and education, and he was a fan of the Bank of the United States. In his first address to Congress in 1825, he lamented being "palsied [paralyzed] by the will of our constituents" (source) and dooming the nation to inferiority by refusing to allow the central government to make internal improvements on roads and canals like European nations were doing. The Jeffersonian purists of the party, led by Senator Martin Van Buren of New York, began forming a like-minded coalition and slowly breaking away from the Adams faction. Van Buren threw his support behind Andrew Jackson.
The election of 1828 put an end to the good feelings.
The campaign started almost as soon as the 1824 election ended; Jackson left the Senate in 1825 to prepare for his presidential bid. Adams supporters painted Jackson as a murdering, law-breaking military hothead who slaughtered British, Americans, and Spaniards alike, and who had a heavy-handed approach, to put it mildly, with the Indian tribes. A campaign poster was printed with drawings of six coffins, depicting the six militiamen that Jackson had executed for desertion in the War of 1812. (Jackson had a notorious temper; he was the only candidate ever to have killed a man in a duel.)
Jackson was also accused of bigamy and adultery because he and his wife Rachel unknowingly married before her divorce was finalized. This may not seem like such a big deal today, but in 1828, it was a devastating accusation. (Rachel died shortly after Jackson's election, and he blamed it on these attacks.)
Adams was vulnerable, too. He was accused by Team Jackson of being an aristocrat who pimped for the Czar while he was ambassador to Russia and had a pool table (gasp!) installed in the White House with government money (source). That was trouble with a capital T that rhymes with P and stands for pool. His support of the Bank of the United States and federal spending on infrastructure was anathema to Jackson supporters.
Jackson promised a more democratic process. He proposed doing away with the Electoral College and having the president and senator elected by popular vote. He thought all judges should be elected by the people. He supported term limits for officeholders because he thought that entrenched career politicians turned into bureaucrats pursuing their own interests rather than those of the people. Sounds pretty virtuous, doesn't it?
But Jackson's advantage in the campaign was more a result of crafty political maneuvering and coalition-building. Van Buren helped build a coalition of Southern and Mid-Atlantic states for Jackson. They formed grassroots political organizations throughout the South called "Hickory Clubs," and held barbecues and parades. (Adams was definitely not the barbecue type.) They got a bunch of newspapers in the South to function more or less as propaganda tool—the Twitter of the time—for the Jackson campaign. And behind it all was a national organization, headquartered in Nashville and Washington coordinating the message and consulting with local committees.
Jacksonians had another sneaky idea: propose a tariff that would make Jackson look like a free trade advocate to Southerners, and a protectionist tariff-supporter to the North. The expectation was that the complicated tariff wouldn't pass, but that either way, Adams would be blamed for it. It was a confusing politically-motivated move that led one Virginia senator to say that Tariff of Abominations was concerned with no manufacturers except the manufacture of the next President of the United States (source).
The tariff passed.
Adams was in the unenviable position of having to sign into law the most hated bill ever.
The Tariff of 1828, known by its opponents as the Tariff of Abominations, increased taxes on imported goods to about 60%.
Andrew Jackson and his VP, John Calhoun of South Carolina (who'd also been Adams' VP, go figure), won by a landslide. Jackson, aided by grass roots party organization in the states, won every state south of the Potomac and west of New Jersey. The new multi-regional coalition that had elected him became a new political party: the Democrats. Adams went back to Congress and had a distinguished career as a statesman and abolitionist.
The acrimony of that campaign never left either man. Jackson never forgave Adams for his supporters' attacks on Rachel. Adams refused to attend Jackson's inauguration and boycotted a Harvard commencement ceremony because Jackson was to be awarded an honorary degree. He let the university know it had disgraced itself by honoring a "barbarian and a savage who could scarcely spell his name" (source).
The South was hurting because of the new Tariff of Abominations, and almost immediately after the election, Calhoun got to work opposing it. In December 1828, a pamphlet—The South Carolina Exposition and Protest—appeared, calling for the nullification of the tariff because it was unconstitutional. The secret author of the pamphlet? None other than VP-elect Calhoun.
The Exposition set out the argument that the Tariff of 1828 was an unconstitutional use of federal authority; it would also be massively detrimental to the economy of South Carolina because it would decrease the export market for her cotton. Therefore, it was state's duty to protest the tariff lest this whole tariff thing snowball.
The South Carolina legislature never took any legal action about the matter, but their next few years were filled with debate about what to do. There was plenty of debate in the U.S. Senate as well. Daniel Webster of Massachusetts (anti-nullification) and Robert Hayne of South Carolina (pro) got into it over the tariff and the slavery economy, prompting an escalating series of speeches about states' rights vs. federal authority. Citizens packed the Senate to hear the legendary debater Webster take it to Hayne, since the local cable company didn't carry C-SPAN until after the Civil War.
Jackson didn't have much to say about the debates, which people took as approval of the nullifiers, since he was such a strong advocate of states' rights. Then, at a dinner commemorating Thomas Jefferson in 1830, Jackson—after listening to speaker after speaker praise states' rights and nullification—proposed a toast: "Our federal Union, it must be preserved." Calhoun then rose and proclaimed, "the Union, next to our liberty, the most dear" (source).
The attendees were shocked.
Jackson was getting a reputation as a nationalist tyrant.
Then in 1832, Jackson supported another tariff, called—wait for it—the Tariff of 1832, which he hoped would fix some of the worst parts of the Tariff of 1828.
South Carolina freaked out.
Led by Calhoun, who'd quit as VP to go back to the Senate and agitate against Jackson, the tariff radicals in the South Carolina legislature drew up a statement of nullification, stating that as far as they were concerned, the tariff was a huge federal overstep, and it was null, void, and dead, dead, dead in the state of South Carolina. And if the government tried to enforce it, well, good luck with that. They'd just take their ball and go home.
Jackson couldn't let this stand.
His deep-seated opposition to nullification and secession had a couple of sources.
First, his belief in the sovereign rule of the people demanded that there had to be a commitment to majority rule. If one state could just reject the will of the majority, then the people's will would be meaningless. Law and government would be impossible—the nation would just be collection of self-governing individuals.
Second, remember that Jackson was a military man. When some disgruntled militiamen challenged him during the Creek wars, he realized that armies depend on discipline. Without acquiescence to authority, there couldn't be armies and there couldn't be governments—just chaos (source).
So he issued his Proclamation Regarding Nullification, telling the upstart South Carolina that this was a nation, not some Boy Scout club, and that all members had to play by the rules they agreed to when they ratified the Constitution. He trashed their arguments in favor of nullification and secession and warned of the grave consequences that would follow.
And then, to show that he could both talk the talk and walk the walk, he passed the Force Bill, which allowed him to use the military against South Carolina if necessary. He also threatened to hang Calhoun. Relations between the North and the South never seemed so strained. Like any good reality TV show, the eyes of the nation watched as the drama unfolded, wondering what was going to happen next. It was the ultimate states' rights smackdown.
Well, at least until the Civil War.
In the end, South Carolina backed down. They symbolically nullified the Force Bill just to get up in the face of the federal government, but ultimately accepted a new compromise tariff passed in 1833. The states' rights issue exploded again in 1860 with the secession of the Southern states, led again by South Carolina, who argued that it was all about local sovereignty, not slavery. (They didn't seem to have any problems with the Fugitive Slave Act, however, which forced citizens of free states to track down and return runaway slaves.)
Anyway, even though that was eventually settled in the north's favor, the argument has never gone away. Same-sex marriage, recreational marijuana, gun laws, you name it—this is one big country, and states differ hugely on what they want.
Declaring that a law is unconstitutional because the feds have overreached their authority—like after the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision that outlawed segregation—is one way to object. Just plain defying the law is another. Threatening to secede is also popular. Texas has been talking about it for years. California has jumped on the secessionist bandwagon, too.
And just think—it all started because of a tariff.