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Regional Conflict in America: Debate Over States' Rights

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  • 0:05 Sectional Differences
  • 1:39 Nullification Crisis
  • 5:09 Jackson's Stand
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Steven Shirley
In this lesson, we will explore sectional tensions that emerged between the West, North, and South over land and tariffs, leading to confrontations in the Senate and a second nullification crisis.

Sectional Differences

The U.S. faced sectional tensions due to the differing economies in the North, South, and West.
Sectional Tensions

Throughout the administration of Andrew Jackson, sectional tensions were pulling at the young nation. The Northern states, with their base in heavy industry and capital, contrasted dramatically with the agricultural base of the South, a region primarily fueled by slave labor, sharecroppers, and a small-but-powerful landed gentry. Thrown into the mix were the Western states, which, like the South, had economies built on agriculture and raw materials and needed to expand in order to grow economically. To facilitate this growth, land was needed, but buying land from the federal government wasn't cheap, and Western interests sought an alliance with Southern states to reduce the cost of government land and lower protective tariffs - both moves that would strengthen their respective economies.

However, the idea was adamantly opposed by Northern interests, who saw the protective tariffs as necessary to raise revenue for the government and protect America's young industrial base. This disagreement over tariffs and land was an early rift between the interests of the North, the South, and the West. It would not easily be mended.

At first, President Jackson would not be pulled into it. He had spent too much of his life devoted to fighting for the entire United States, not simply for regional interests. Unfortunately for him, his Vice President, John C. Calhoun, was not so disposed.

Nullification Crisis

A native of South Carolina, Calhoun had designs on the presidency since his time as Secretary of War under President James Monroe, his time as a senator, and his time as Vice President under John Quincy Adams. Since 1818, there had been personal animosity brewing between him and Jackson, but they were quite close ideologically. Had it been any other time in our nation's history, the two might have got along fine in public and private life. But given the tension rising among the sections of the country, the one area they differed on, states' rights, just happened be the biggest crisis of Jackson's presidency and the one that would ultimately doom the nation to civil war: nullification.

But the war was still two decades away. For now, the argument centered on a state's right to declare null and void any federal mandate it did not wish to follow. The idea sprang from Calhoun's own mind, as well as those who agreed with him. It would allow a state to interpret the Constitution as it saw fit, just as any social contract was open to interpretation by those who signed and agreed to it.

Jackson and Calhoun were close ideologically, except when it came to the rights given to the states.
Jackson and Calhoun on States Rights

What is more, if Congress or the President should pass a law that went against the interests of a particular state, the state had every right to refuse to obey it, or, if it chose, to withdraw from the social contract altogether. President Jackson could not have disagreed more with his Vice President. He knew if any state could be allowed to nullify federal law, there would be no union. President Jackson wasn't playing around on this one, stating:

'Tell the nullifiers from me that they can talk and write resolutions and print threats to their hearts' content, but if one drop of blood be shed there in defiance of the laws of the United States, I will hang the first man of them I can get my hands on to the first tree I can find.'

Both sides were serious and playing for keeps, but who would blink first? The main issue that bothered the nullifiers, as Jackson called them, was the federal tariff, but this was supplemented with a growing concern that the Federal government would soon seek to expand its power even more and ultimately abolish the institution of slavery.

Slavery was seen as necessary to the economy of the American South. And in South Carolina, where in parts the slaves outnumbered whites 2 to 1, such an idea was unthinkable. They believed, if given freedom, or at the very least, given hope of freedom, slaves would threaten the lives and livelihood of Southern plantation owners. Already there had been slave revolts in Virginia and South Carolina - such talk from the federal government could not be allowed in slave states, or so they believed.

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