The Nullifiers and Cliven Bundy

Nullification . . . despotism (1833 lithograph by Endicott & Swett)Not fifty years had passed before some Americans grew restive under the federal Union.

Back then, in 1832, the unhappy ones were called “nullifiers.”  They hailed from South Carolina, and their leader was the redoubtable John C. Calhoun, a senator and out-going Vice President with a good head on his shoulders and plenty of determination.  (In the cartoon above, he is the central figure, reaching for the despot’s crown.)

The nullifiers argued that because the states had existed before the federal Union, the states had the right to “nullify,” or say no to, a federal law.  Nullifiers believed that the states, which had ratified the Constitution, retained a kind of sovereignty, despite having empowered the federal government and established the Constitution as “the supreme law of the land.”

The down-side of federalism

By the 1830s, Americans were having to grapple with the fact that, under the federal system, their point of view would sometimes be in the minority.  Congress would sometimes craft federal laws that defied individual interests or the interests of individual states.  The preferences of a state or region could be perennially disregarded unless it could persuade a majority to share its view.

Slave states, in particular, became deathly afraid that, if slave-holding became a minority interest, the federal government could legislate slavery out of existence.

So radicals in South Carolina got busy inventing a school of thought that would justify their disobeying federal laws they didn’t like.  As it happened, a political controversy over tariffs rather than slavery furnished their first test case.

Unhappy radicals nullify a federal law

The uproar came over what they called “the tariff of abominations.”  Battles over tariff policy were to 19th-century politics what tax issues are to Americans now.  In the first century or so of the country’s existence, tariffs, not internal taxes, supplied most of the federal government’s revenue.

Tariffs protected America’s developing economy, which, though burgeoning, was in danger of being cannabalized by mature economic powers like England.  So the US imposed many tariffs on imports, both manufactured goods and commodities.  Congress drafted and debated tariff legislation every few years, occasioning intense negotiations and bad feelings.

Inevitably, tariffs affected southern and northern interests differently.  Tariffs forced southerners, who engaged mainly in agriculture, to pay more for manufactured goods or imports they needed, whereas northerners benefited from the protection given to their emerging industries and to internal trade.  In the long term, the South stood to benefit from more goods being produced domestically, but it was not inclined to see it that way.  The system of tariffs imposed through federal legislation in 1828 and again in 1832 roused the radicals to defy the so-called “Tariff of Abominations.”

South Carolina’s nullifiers got serious and, on November 24, 1832, used their majority in the state legislature to pass a Nullification Ordinance declaring the national tariff law void.  Their action posed a threat to the entire federal system, for what would remain of the Union if every state were allowed to defy a law it didn’t like?

Andrew Jackson, who was president at the time, might have been thought sympathetic to the nullifiers.  After all, he was a Southern slave-holder who opposed certain forms of centralized power, such as a national bank.  His response to South Carolina, however, was swift and uncompromising: he had Congress pass a Force Bill, empowering him to enforce the federal law by military means if necessary.  In the meantime, Henry Clay obtained some concessions in the tariff legislation that made it easier for South Carolina to retreat from its dangerous position without losing face.  Jackson never had to use the power the Force Bill gave him.  The crisis passed.

Nullification’s baleful legacy

The desire to break free of federalism’s limits continued to disorder the political culture of the Palmetto State.  Its radicals never disavowed the anti-federalist temptation.  Their principles were still doing damage a generation later, when fire-eaters in South Carolina were the first to take their state out of the Union, claiming that this was every state’s right.  Eleven states eventually followed their lead.  It took the Civil War and four years of bloodshed to lay to rest the nullifiers’ dangerous doctrines.

When I hear of Cliven Bundy and others who do not wish to abide by federal law, I hear the echoes of the nullifiers.  These are Americans ignorant of the tragic consequences of the doctrines they mouth.  Federalism, however imperfect, has secured to every American benefits that never would have been attained under a weaker system.  Cliven Bundy subverts the values of the flag that he loves to wave.  “From the many, one?”  He’s forgotten what that means.

Image: An 1833 lithograph by Endicott and Swett correctly envisions the consequences of nullification’s doctrines.  Calhoun and other nullifiers mount a pyramid at whose base lie two slain figures, draped in the American flag and the motto “E Pluribus Unum.”  They represent the Constitution and the Union.  At right is Andrew Jackson, pulling down the nullifier who would ascend from nullification to treason.  The kneeling figures at left are modestly circumstanced Southerners, forced to endure whatever may come of the nullifiers’ rash and self-serving deeds.  Beyond the top step of the pyramid, labeled Disunion, lies Anarchy.


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3 responses

  1. This article is promoting a fiction, not reality. I will explain. Back to the beginning it was well known that a constitution must be created that would forever limit the actions of government. This constitution must be as simple as possible and plainly written to list exactly any possible future event that federal government might use to take over our country and reduce freedoms, rights, and liberties. No living man (or woman) can predict the future so also built into this permanent government limiting contract is a method of amending it when it needs adjustment. I think this has been done 27 times.

    Now to BLM and Mr. Bundy of the Bundy ranch. BLM is claiming that they own the land upon which Mr. Bundy has ancestral grazing rights. They are claiming the right to regulate how many cattle he can run on the land and other particulars. Under constitutional law our federal government cannot own grazing land or forest land within the states or within any state of the union. Mr. Bundy is claiming BLM has no authority in Nevada to collect rent on land they cannot legally own. He says he has offered it to the state of Nevada but they do not know how to accept it. He says he has offered it to Clark County and they do not have a means of accepting it either. In fact they have been operating under the fiction of BLM owning the land.

    My familiarity of this matter is not just from Mr. Bundy’s plight. Within my state the BLM and Forest Service claim to own more than 50% of the forest land. In the early 1980’s my state was attacked by environmentalists over the Northern Spotted Owl. This flawed study done singlehanded by one man who had taken a personal interest in this failing owl. With little, if any, scientific research to back up the claims that harvesting timber was making the Owl extinct, all logging was stopped. Even today there are owl caused restrictions in place and the timber capital of the world is now a place where a few mills still operate. The irony of this is that the study was wrong. The Spotted Owl is a failing species whose time has nearly ended. In areas where no logging has occurred for 30 years they are dying out faster than in areas of second-growth forest.

    Since the government (think endangered species act) has destroyed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Oregonians and others in other states, they feel pretty much committed to saving this failing owl. So much that our government is engaged in killing off the Barred Owl which is moving back into this area and cross breeding with the Spotted Owl. According to articles I have read published by environmental groups studying the owls’ habitat, the offspring of the mating of the two birds produces a owl indistinguishable from the Spotted Owl, by ordinary means of observation. Only in a laboratory can they determine the dead bird’s parentage. Yet this offspring thrives where the parent Spotted Owl is failing.

    In this article Mr. Bundy is referred to as radical. I say it is the Radical Left who occupies seats in our Congress who has inch by inch over the years and decades taken control of everything possible outside of federal jurisdiction at any opportunity. Mr. Bundy is a US Citizen who thinks the constitution is still in effect and is acting accordingly. Irregardless of the outcome, I applaud you, Mr. Cilven Bundy.

    We can all name wrongs done by others, we can point fingers and ridicule those on the other side of the argument. But this time it is US on both sides of this. If we fight it out there will be no winners. It is time for careful evaluation of the claims made about Forest Service and BLM of owning land when the constitution says no land can be owned by them. Make the appropriate changes on paper and then we can go back to work and our futures need not suffer. There is no reason for armed confrontations.

    • Farmer Dave,
      Did it ever occur to you that, if these lands were not owned by the federal government, they might not be available to Mr Bundy at all? They might well have been bought up by private entities and reserved entirely for private or corporate uses, with no consideration whatever for the needs of neighboring property-owners.

      Were it not for the federal government, many states west of the Mississippi would not have been settled by American whites and they would not be part of the US today. As I am sure you know, present-day Nevada once belonged to Mexico and became a territorial possession of the US only because the federal government fought a war with Mexico and acquired vast tracts of land from it as part of the Mexican Cession of 1848. The federal government paid $15 million dollars to Mexico according to the terms of the agreement, in turn acquiring land now amounting to 14.9% of the present-day United States.

      Throughout the late nineteenth century, the federal government waged war intermittently against the Indian tribes so that whites could safely settle in these and other western territories.

      Throughout our history, the federal government has owned and managed territorial lands. Beginning early in its history (1785), it developed a system for settling and organizing public land into territories and allowing the territorial settlers to organize governments and become states. Territories were surveyed and designated parcels were offered for sale on fair terms. Other lands (such as those used for railroads) were granted to private entities. Following some variation of this system, the federal government added many states to the Union, except of course the original 13.

      The federal government wanted as many Americans as possible to have an opportunity to own land (which has certainly not been the case in many other countries). Federal legislation like the Homestead Act created terms on which people like Mr Bundy’s ancestors could buy property.

      The federal government once owned almost 1.2 billion acres of land, which it acquired through diplomatic negotiation, purchase, and war. Far from being a new or suspect activity, land-owning is one the US government’s oldest activities! Its public lands were made into states. Public land sales were an essential and chief source of federal revenue for decades. The federal government has been the single biggest land-owner in our nation’s history. It has every right to reserve some remaining vestiges of its public lands and to manage them as it sees fit.

      Instead of being grateful for the amazing opportunities that federalism brought into being, Mr Bundy decries federalism because he believes there hasn’t been enough in it for him. Forgive me, but where I come from, this does not pass for patriotism. If the US government had not fought the war with Mexico or purchased the land, Mr Bundy would be living in Mexican territory today. Would he be a happier man?

      I appreciate your writing in and the civil tone in which you made your comments. I am sorry Mr Bundy and his ilk cannot see their cup as half-full.
      Susan Barsy

    • This morning I received in my ‘mail-bag’ the following reply from Farmr Dave, which I attach here unchanged and in its entirety:

      Relating to the article titled, “The nullifiers and Cliven Bundy” dated June 16, 2014. I just discovered you had made a reply to my comment about the article.

      Susan in your reply you missed the point of my comments. Yes the Federal Government can and has owned much land. Such land often referred to as insular lands or territorial lands is completely under control of the federal government. It is totally owned by it without question. When some of that land is used to form a new state. At the time of statehood the Federal Government looses all rights of land ownership other than what is described in Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17, of the US Constitution. That is why on a map each state has boundaries declaring where its borders are. The land within a states borders belongs to that state. This is clarified more in Article 10. Granted, for more than 140 years the Federal Government has been claiming ownership of forest and grazing lands in the western states as well as all related natural resources. But still none of that makes it legal under constitutional law.

      If you can please direct me to any claimed law that grants authority to our government that is outside of constitutional intent and the letter of constitutional law.

      As well as Mr. Bundy we have LaVoy Finicum of Arizona, and another rancher in Utah which have decided to stand up to the fiction of federal land ownership with the states. I suspect in the end it will be disastrous for these ranchers and for their families, part of the reason for that is lack of media interest in any subject not “politically correct”. Why was Cliven Bundy discredited in every way possible by our media? There are literally hundreds of baseless lies printed about this man who by all appearance and neighbor opinion is a hard working tax paying moral grandfather exercising his legal right to forage his cattle as per his grazing contract. Yet it is claimed he harbored the insane killers who shot up a store. Claimed he threatened federal agents with guns and violence. That he is a deadbeat making millions off of illegal use of federal land. That he has conspired with and boarded anti American militia groups. Claims of racist bigot abound.

      In truth thousands of normal American citizens responded in this time of need by a fellow citizen. If they had not would we now have another Ruby Ridge or Waco?

      Please go to LaVoy Finicum on youtube (this is ongoing issue) and listen to what he has to say. Just for the sake of politeness assume he is legit in his efforts and hear him out about grazing rights and such before you draw any conclusions.

      This matter is as important to me as the Boston tea party was to those who attended. It should be of equal importance to all Americans (US citizens) and can be if the media stands up for reporting of the facts. My third great granddaughter will be born in one month or less. I do not want her to miss out on living in a free United States. In my lifetime I have witnessed government grow and liberty shrink. Congress has now determined the acceptable size of holes in Swiss cheese. All congressmen are millionaires and many have occupied their seats for many decades. You have a means to report the facts to the American People. Please study this matter and do so.

      Sincerely farmrdave