Nullification Theory Essay

            The idea of nullification was definitely not a uniquely southern perspective. Over thirty years earlier, following the national government’s passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson had written the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions as a retort to national violations on individual rights. Madison and, especially, Jefferson raised the apparition of nullification.

            Later, throughout the War of 1812, New England opponents to the conflict met in December 1814 in Hartford, Connecticut, to voice their dissatisfaction with national policy. At the Hartford Convention, New England Federalists offered amendments that would bind the power of the national government in foreign affairs, bar immigrants from government positions, and entail the threat of secession. By the 1830s only southern spokespersons articulated the states’ rights-compact theory with its right of nullification. Initially southern state leaders protested that northern encroachments concerning tariff policies threatened the welfare of the South. John C. Calhoun of South Carolina wrote the South Carolina Exposition and Protest and expressed the right of interposition to protect the rights of a minority against nuisance by the majority (Abramson, J. 1994).

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            Eventually the southern states took the compact theory to its intense by seceding from the Union. On the eve of the Civil War, southern leaders argued that the Constitution represented a shared contract between the states and the federal government. They obstinately believed that the states had created the national government and that when the national government (or North) abrogated its part of the agreement, the contract was no longer valid. The Civil War, fought between 1861 and 1865, brought to an end this detailed argument concerning federalism when the Union prevail.

            According to nullification theory, the long arm of the sovereign state could check the federal government. The committee compounded its error by adding a quotation from Jefferson that stated, “It is a fatal heresy . . . to suppose that either our state governments are superior to the federal, or the federal to the state.” Thomas Jefferson to Spencer Roane, 1821. ME 15:328

            Afterward, Calhoun undertook to defend nullification against the protestations of other states’ righter. By 1832, however, he made an extreme case for complete state sovereignty and denied the existence of the federal government as a popular government. He argued that there was “no direct and immediate association between the individual citizens of the state and the General Government.” Southern politicians had employed states’ rights to defend slavery throughout the Missouri debates and to attack the program of economic nationalism, but most traditional states’ righters destined nullification as an aberration rather than a fruition of states’ rights theory. Nullification desecrated the cardinal tenet of states’ righters strict construction as it was not mentioned in the Constitution and it circumvented the amendment progression laid out in the Constitution. John Randolph, for example, opposed nullification as unrepublican and as going far beyond the written word of the Constitution.

            In the three decades before the Civil War, the proslavery, antidemocratic discourse pioneered by Carolinian planter politicians throughout nullification would form the theoretical foundation of southern nationalism. But it was merely with secession that the Carolina doctrine would be fully vindicated in the South. By then most slaveholders had been converted to the notion of absolute state sovereignty that under girded nullification, if not to nullification itself. In this sense, nullification was certainly a dress rehearsal for secession. Nullifiers’ Jacksonian and proto-Whig opponents, though, in spite of their diverse political outlooks, would appeal for loyalty to the Union and the American experiment in republican government.

            The appeal to these ideals was also invasive among Carolinian unionists and was the dominant ideological framework that held together a varied antinullifier coalition. While a few planter politicians chose to reject nullification, the yeomanry of the nonplantation districts formed the base of the Union Party. The nullifiers resultant their greatest political strength from the black belt, especially the planter-dominated low country parishes and cotton districts of the middle- and upcountry. The final losers throughout nullification were the unionist mountain yeomanry, who were further marginalized politically, and the slaves, whose enslavement and rigid subordination was the sine qua non of the Carolina doctrine.

            The fight on nullification was the second eternally important struggle during Jackson’s Presidency. It was an attempt to protect the United States against the old danger of disunion -a danger which had already been dramatized by the separatist movements in New England during Jefferson’s day. However when it came to providing a solution to the country’s problems, the fight on nullification suffered from the same limitation as the fight on the Bank: Jackson knew what not to do, but he had no positive remedy to offer.

The nullification crisis of 1832-33 was the start of a party revolution in America. When the revolution was completed, the Democratic Party belonged to Calhoun and not to the heirs of Jefferson. But the first step of all was the struggle over nullification. This struggle was precipitated by the tariff dilemma, and it marked the high point of the quarrel between Jackson and Calhoun.

            Although Hamilton had won acceptance for the defensive principle during Washington’s first Administration, the United States did not adopt an out-and-out protective tariff until 1816, at the end of the second war with England. Throughout the period of the Embargo Acts and of the war, the textile industry got a footing in New England and domestic production in all lines was stimulated. While the war ended and cheap British goods began to flood the country, there was a loud demand for protection.

            The course of the political debate in the national ground throughout the years from 1815 to the outbreak of the Civil War proceeded through three stages. Up to the nullification crisis a corporate concept of freedom shaped the debate. Cognizant of their common bond with ancestors and posterity, supporters if the corporate outlook took time far more seriously than did their opponents and successors. They welcomed the institutions and elements of order coming from the past. Champions of the old spiritual establishments accordingly sought with some success to control the energies of religions revivalism to their purposes, while others embraced the enterprise of reform as a mode of social control. The growing influence of the legal profession and the endurance of the common law in the face of initially strong popular hostility likewise assured other forms of discipline from the past? Looking to the future, the advocates of corporate freedom would use the instrument of government in an optimistic way to achieve through time the goods of increasing order and improvement. Confronted with the claims of larger liberty, they espoused what was later called a “doctrine of institutions,” for they sought to objectify and institutionalize in some degree the subjective sense of national unity which came out of the War of 1812.

            The varied policies of the American System–a national bank, internal improvements, the protecting tariff, and a land policy for moderating the rate of westward settlement–would optimistically forge new bonds of mutual dependence and reciprocal advantage. The elements order to be attained by the resulting diversity of economic pursuits, a relatively stable and compacted population and a more uniform “national character” also pointed to progressive improvement. Because the pursuit of happiness was assumed to be growing and ongoing in nature, there was the long-run goal of enriching the conditions of the common life as the nation moved through time up the scale of civilization (Barkan, S. E. 1983).

            In other terms this corporate viewpoint evinced what Guido de Ruggiero called the positive aspect or phase of the liberal mind. Liberation from the evil prescriptions of the past thus presented a golden opportunity for social man to add a cubit to his stature. Qualitative progress would mark the movement of the nation throughout time and, as Ruggiero would phrase it in more formal terms, there would be more freedom at the end than at the beginning of the historical process. The predilection of the advocates of the American System for a loose interpretation of the Constitution obviously manifested this point of view. They demanded the right to turn the literal wording of the national charter to the reason, the needs, and the peculiar opportunities of each successive generation.

            They also established the accumulating corpus of legislative precedents and legal decisions as useful guidelines for directing the common course. In this context the Union under the Constitution was reckoned to be the kind of entity that grew through time.

An ambivalent approach with regard to slavery reflected the dual emphasis of order and improvement to be found in the corporate idea of freedom. With a greater concern for the peculiar pedigree of American liberty, Daniel Webster tolerated slavery as one of the historical elements within the developing order of the Union (Campbell, M. 1999). By contrast, John Quincy Adams, because of his interest in qualitative improvement, grew more positive by the time of the nullification controversy that slavery comprised a very real and permanent obstacle to his hopes for national progress. As the alternative to secession and a separate union composed exclusively of Free states, Adams and others of like mind were to be tempted in the following decades to join the crusade against slavery. They would argue that such a crusade was essential as the precondition for resuming the task of inspirational the quality of national life.

            Under the banner of federative freedom the opponents of the American System of policies gained their victory throughout the nullification controversy and provided the basic structure to the national debate until the end of the 1840s. Central in this viewpoint was the demand for freedom from the efforts of the federal government to direct or control in any considerable way the nation’s course through time (Finkel, N. J. 1995). A larger liberty for individuals, the rule of each generation, essential autonomy for local communities and states though contradictory these goods would prove to be all bore common witness by 1830 against the institutional imperatives of the corporate viewpoint and its premise of directed qualitative change through time. By supposing freedom established in its entirety at the beginning, the advocates of federative freedom were therefore led to believe that the course of time tended only to derogate from, because it could never improve upon the quality of freedom. Their penchant for strict interpretation expressed this position well; for if the Constitution had defined at the outset a perfect order of autonomy, then loose construction and the consolidation of the nation that came in its train were bound to subvert the true nature of the Union of freemen.

            The response of Webster and Adams to the dismantling of the American System during the nullification crisis reveals a good deal concerning the thrust of Jacksonian Democracy. By their support of the Force Bill, both stated the integrity of the Union against the threat of the nullifiers. But they equally opposed the President’s other compromise tactic, namely, that of lowering the tariff and undoing with his veto its related policies. As agreeing with Jackson that liberty and the Union were not so easily separated, they conceived of freedom within the Union in a far different way. Both remained recognized with a corporate view of social man within the process of time. By its dual emphasis on the good of order from the past and on improvement to be realize through some degree of planning for the future, this corporate concept served to place in sharper relief the, Jacksonian desire to a larger liberty for individuals in the present and a patent destiny of expansion for the nation (Ashworth, A. 2000).

            All through the nullification controversy, to consider Webster first of all, the Massachusetts Senator stressed the order of Union as the highest good. It was an absolute and vital necessity to our welfare. Later public addresses developed more completely the theme of its “transcendent value,” while the speech against Calhoun on the Force Bill brought into fullest form his legal argument for the Union as an end in itself (Gans, H. J. 1995).

            In its highest function Webster conceived of the Union under the Constitution as fundamentally religious in character. It gave constant form to liberty, as he had observed earlier, and thus enabled each generation of freemen to relate itself significantly in “the great chain of being.” Primal chaos, in such a view, was the only alternative. The arousing appeal and choice of symbols in his reply to Hayne made this very clear. By using a chain, a temple, or a constellation as a symbol Webster dramatized the awful opportunity that the snapping of any link, the collapse of a single column, or the bolting of any one star would involve the whole in ruin. Thus, Nullification theory led to secession, he warned, and secession from the “happy constellation” of Union could not stop until all had descended, “star after star, into anonymity and night.”


Abramson, J. (1994). We the jury: The jury system and the ideal of democracy. New York: Basic Books.
Ashworth, A. (2000). Sentencing and criminal justice. 3d ed. London: Butterworths.
Barkan, S. E. (1983). Jury nullification in political trials. Social Problems 31 (1): 2844.
Campbell, M. (1999). An analysis of private member bills. Ottawa: Ministry of the Solicitor General.
Finkel, N. J. (1995). Commonsense justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Gans, H. J. (1995). The war against the poor: The underclass and antipoverty policy. New York: Basic Books.
Thomas Jefferson to Spencer Roane, 1821. ME 15:328

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