Nullification Crisis of 1832: Definition & Summary

  • 0:02 What Was Nullification?
  • 1:21 Origins of the Crisis
  • 3:57 The Great Debate
  • 7:04 Crisis & Jackson's Response
  • 8:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David Lobb
Develop an understanding of the Nullification Crisis of 1832 to include who was involved, the impact of the debate and reactions by the President and Congress. Test your knowledge with a short quiz.

What Was Nullification?

In the South Carolina state election of 1832, attention focused on the issue of nullification, the concept that a state could ignore or refuse to apply federal laws. Those in support of nullification were gaining momentum and were well organized by the time of the elections. Only the merchants of Charleston and the small farmers of the up country supported the Unionist side. A special session of the state legislature was called, and an ordinance of nullification was adopted. In turn, the federal tariff acts of 1828 and 1832 were denounced and labeled unconstitutional. The ordinance also forbade the collection of duties in the state and provided that any citizen of South Carolina who had property seized by federal authorities for failure to pay, could get a court order to recover twice the value. The legislature also made Robert Hayne governor and chose John C. Calhoun to succeed him as Senator. Calhoun was the current vice-president. He promptly resigned the post and returned to South Carolina to defend nullification on the floor of the Senate. The theories and ideas of Calhoun would lay the frame work for secession and give justification to the confederate states to leave the Union some thirty years later.

Origins of the Crisis

So, what compelled South Carolina to move towards nullification and turn its back on federal regulations in 1832? The debate stretched back to the years before the presidential election of 1828, in which Andrew Jackson, a Southerner, slaveholder and staunch supporter of the Union was elected. Calhoun shared much of the same background as Jackson and early on in his political career had been a nationalist and a War Hawk - a fine irony as he would become the symbol of states' rights activism. Conditions in his home state had much to do with this shift. During the 1820s, South Carolina suffered from agricultural depression, losing almost 70,000 people to emigration during the decade. During the 1830s, the state would lose almost twice that number. Most people in the state blamed the tariff, which tended to raise the price of manufactured goods as it discouraged the sale of foreign goods to the United States. This reduced the ability of the French and British traders to get American money and bills of exchange with which to buy American cotton. Compounding this perceived attack on the livelihood of the state, South Carolinians were becoming worried over the North's increased criticism of slavery. Calhoun had no choice but to take up the cause or lose his home base. Early on, Calhoun still believed there was a way to preserve the Union by protecting the rights that the agricultural and slave holding Southern states claimed.

Calhoun saw nullification as a way to prevent a slide towards outright rebellion and succession. The procedure for nullification, he argued, allowed a state to repeal a federal law much in the same way the original 13 colonies had ratified the Constitution. Special state conventions, like the ratifying conventions, would be called. At these conventions, the people could declare a federal law null and void because it violated the Constitution, the original compact among the states. Calhoun saw one of two possible outcomes; either the federal government would have to abandon the law, or it would have to get a constitutional amendment removing any doubt of the laws validity. For Calhoun and the people of South Carolina, the immediate issue was the constitutionality of the tariff, which they argued was designed mainly to protect American industry from foreign competition. Calhoun and those favoring nullification argued that the Constitution only allowed for tariffs as a way to gather revenue.

The Great Debate

Calhoun's theory, and that of the nullificationists, sparked perhaps the greatest debate the Senate floor has ever seen. In 1830, then Senator Robert Hayne saw an opportunity to champion the cause of States' rights and give context to the nullification theory of Calhoun. That same year, the Senate was dealing with the issue of how to handle public lands. The federal government still owned huge tracts of unsettled land. Senator Samuel Foot of Connecticut argued that the government restrict land sales in the West. When his proposal came up for debate, Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton denounced the proposal as a sectional attack by Northerners to restrict the settlement of the West in an attempt to hang on to cheap labor for industry there.

Hayne came to Benton's defense and saw in the debate the larger issue of the tariff and its effect on his home state of South Carolina. Hayne argued that the government endangered the Union if it passed laws that caused hardship to one section of the country in order to benefit the other. Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts was on the other side of the debate. Arguably the greatest orator in American history, Webster argued that from the beginning the Revolution had been a crusade of the united colonies rather than of each separately. True sovereignty, he stated, resided in the people as a whole for whom both state and federal governments acted as agents in the people's behalf. If a single state could nullify a law of the general government, then the Union would be a 'rope of sand' according to Webster. Instead, he argued that the Constitution created a Supreme Court with final jurisdiction on all questions of constitutionality. A state could neither nullify a federal law nor secede from the Union. Webster argued that the outcome of Calhoun and Hayne's theory of nullification would lead to civil war.

Hayne used the example of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 and even harkened to the Hartford Convention in which New Englanders had argued many of the same points as those from South Carolina. The Union, Hayne argued, was a compact of the states. He said the federal government could not be the judge of its own powers. Hayne was adamant that the states remained free to judge when the government oversteps the bounds of its constitutional authority.

Some have argued that Hayne had the better argument historically, but the Senate and much of the country was entranced by the eloquence of Webster. Webster's closing statement in the debate with Hayne became a classic. School children memorized it, and it was reprinted in their school books. At the end of the day, Webster had the better argument when it came to the world of coalition politics. Union and majority rule meant more to Westerners, including President Jackson, than the theories of Calhoun and Hayne. Whatever the argument about the origins of the Union, its evolution mirrored more and more Webster's position.

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