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Politics is a four-letter word. Well, it's actually eight letters, but you get our drift.
The election of 1828 marked the rise of modern political parties and the types of political campaigns we know and love today. You know—the ones with the lies, scandals, and mudslinging; where the personality of the candidate can mean more than his or her policy positions; where newspapers take sides and tempers flare; where endless rallies and meet-the candidate opportunities abound.
For about ten years—a period called "The Era of Good Feelings"—there was really only one party—the Democratic-Republicans aka Jeffersonian Republicans aka Republicans. (No wonder there were good feelings.) But Jackson and Van Buren co-starred to bring us a new party: the Democrats. States' rights friendly, populist, and favoring the common farmer and worker, the new party felt that the Republicans were acting a little too much like big-government nationalists in their embrace of manufacturing, a central bank, and federal spending on roads and canals.
These two parties defined the political debate of the Jacksonian Era and beyond, sparring over states' rights, tariffs, slavery, and just about everything else. But in the Nullification Crisis, Jackson was fighting with his own party. He was an avid states' rights advocate, but not of the states' right to decide what is and isn't constitutional. Things sure look different once you get to be the president.
We're sure some choice words were said during some of these confrontations. They were probably more than four letters, though—those guys could expound.
Jackson hoped that his Proclamation would act as nullification kryptonite, putting an end to the first serious flare-up between two parts of the country that once worked together to fight the British, but were quickly becoming mortal foes to one another.
The Constitutional question of federal vs. state control that propelled the Nullification Crisis is the primary issue in U.S. politics now and forever.
Shmoop has a great-uncle who flew 25 missions in WWII, came home, ran for Congress, and volunteered at the local VA hospital. After he retired, he was part of a First Amendment watchdog group that kept an eye on free press issues. But the guy absolutely refused to wear a flag pin on his lapel. Seriously, didn't he ever hear of patriotism?
Accusing someone of being unpatriotic is one of the most effective putdowns you can use; nobody likes an "unpatriotic" American. Think about the flak Colin Kaepernick's taken for his refusal to stand during pre-game national anthems. He insists he's being deeply patriotic, though, holding to foundational American ideals such as equal justice under the law—way more important to him than standing for the anthem or (gasp) not wearing a flag pin.
Andrew Jackson knew that appealing South Carolina's sense of duty, national pride, and patriotism would be a potent argument. He reminded them of their glorious forefathers who fought the British and the South Carolina patriots who helped found the nation. They didn't want to dishonor their memory, did they? Of course, South Carolina thought they were patriotic in demanding that the federal government stick to making laws that the constitution permitted it to make. Jackson shot that argument right down.
Question is, were they wearing their red-white-and-blue waistcoats?
By appealing to a sense of patriotic duty and an idealized past, Jackson created an image of a perfect America in order to convince South Carolina to drop a legitimate argument concerning state vs. federal authority.
Jackson's war-hero background gave him the standing to decide what was patriotic and what wasn't.
If you want to die with dignity, go to Oregon. Need medical marijuana for chronic pain? You can move to Connecticut. Supporter of concealed carry? How's Alaska sound? Want to retire and not pay state income taxes? Then Florida's the place for you.
States can set some of their own rules, but there are plenty of federal laws that all states have to follow. Florida can't abolish federal income tax, for example, and Massachusetts can't outlaw gun ownership. Idaho can't just decide that segregated schools would be just fine with them, because the Supreme Court decided that segregation violated the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. Just as in Jackson's time, because we're part of a United States, we abide by federal law.
The Constitution stated that the federal government's job was to "establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common Defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity […]. That leaves a whole heckuva lot open for interpretation, and states been fighting about it ever since. In fact, the framers started amending it as soon as it was written, thinking that maybe it gave the government too much authority.
When a state believes their interest is at odds with what the feds think is their territory, what's a poor state to do? They can ignore the federal law, like South Carolina did in 1832, and see what happens. They can pass laws that the feds could then appeal to the Supreme Court. And of course, they can always secede from the U.S., although that's easier said than done.
The Nullification Crisis was a prime example of a states' rights argument. South Carolina checked out the Constitution, which is the basis for federal authority, and determined that the feds didn't have the right to impose this particular tariff. Therefore, they could ignore it. It wasn't the first states' rights argument and it sure wouldn't be the last.
Even Jackson suspected that the country hadn't heard the last of it, even after South Carolina nullifiers backed down. If they couldn't break up the nation over the tariff argument, he said, they'd move on "the n****, or slavery question" as their "next pretext" (source).
He was right.
Jackson's response to South Carolina's nullification of the "Tariff of Abominations" shows that Jackson's support for states' rights wasn't very deep.
Secession is just too messy and destructive to be constitutional.
In a country torn between two domains, only one man can save its people from chaos, destruction, and complete annihilation. A nation known for its unity has been torn asunder by a force with a newfound superhuman ability: nullification. Now, this one man has a choice: engage the villain in earth-shattering warfare or lose his own power and control. This man is Judicious Jackson—purveyor of law and order.
Jackson actually kind of viewed himself this way—as a symbol of the law. Everything South Carolina was trying to achieve, he believed, would lead to disorder and eventually risk a collapse into civil war.
Of course, we don't know if any of this would have actually happened. But South Carolina knew that they were disrupting the order of things by challenging the federal government on the Tariff of 1828, and Jackson was not about to let that happen. He was convinced of the power of the presidency, and while he was no Louis "I am the state" XIV, you can see him in overdrive trying to keep the lid on this thing.
The disorder caused by the ideas of secession or nullification warranted Jackson's severe response.
Jackson was right about the chaos that would ensue if South Carolina seceded. Case in point: the Civil War.