The Force Bill: Definition, History & Effects

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  • 0:00 Background to the Force Bill
  • 1:29 Nullification and the…
  • 3:59 Significance of the Force Bill
  • 4:54 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason McCollom
In a showdown over a federal tariff law in 1832, South Carolina and the Federal Government, under President Andrew Jackson, almost came to blows. The center of this controversy was the Force Bill. Learn about the crisis surrounding the Force Bill, and check your knowledge with a quiz.

Background to the Force Bill

When the legislature of South Carolina voted to ignore and override a federal law, that of the tariff of 1832, President Andrew Jackson responded with wrath. He had Congress pass a measure, the Force Bill, to force South Carolina to adhere to federal law. The Force Bill also authorized Jackson to use the military to carry out the law. A Missouri Senator said of Jackson, 'I have known General Jackson a great many years, and when he speaks of hanging it is time to look for a rope.'

By the 1820s, Southerners, especially those in South Carolina, had begun to worry about federal intrusion on states' rights. More specifically, they felt that any federal move into the realm of state affairs had the potential to be used to attack the institution of slavery. To keep the volatile matter of slavery out of public debate, Southerners instead utilized the federal protective tariff as an issue on which to take their stand of states' rights.

A tariff is a tax, or duty, on imports. Southerners opposed the federal tariff for two reasons: it raised prices for the goods they purchased, and it resulted in retaliatory tariffs in the foreign markets, in which Southern farmers sold cotton and other agricultural staples. Northern industrialists, however, pushed tariff bills through Congress because it made their competitors' goods more expensive. In 1828, a federal tariff law passed with rates as high as 50%.

Nullification and the Force Bill

In 1832, another federal tariff kept duties high. Southerners called the 1832 measure the 'tariff of abominations,' and the South Carolina legislature deemed it unconstitutional and argued states had the right to nullify, or void, federal laws. In November 1832, South Carolina political leaders voted to forbid the collection of tariff duties in the state. Finally, they proclaimed that if the Federal Government attempted to use force to collect the duties, South Carolina had the right to secede from the Union.

As a result, tensions between the Jackson administration and South Carolina increased. Federal officials considered the Southern state out of line, and a South Carolina congressman described the Union as a 'foul monster.' President Jackson believed nullification theory was a direct threat to the union of the United States. South Carolinian John C. Calhoun, senator and former vice president, emerged as the leading advocate for nullification. At a White House dinner, President Jackson offered a toast to 'Our Federal Union - it must be preserved,' to which Calhoun retorted with his own toast, 'The Union - next to our liberty, the most dear!' Soon the issue came to a head.

President Jackson had Congress enact the Force Bill, which stipulated two important things. First, the Force Bill gave Jackson military powers to force compliance with the federal tariff law of 1832. Under this provision, Jackson sent armed ships to Charleston harbor and threatened to invade South Carolina. Jackson said nullification 'means insurrection and war,' and called it a treasonous attack on America.

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