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.