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October 10, 2018

A Lesson in Foreshadowing: The American Nullification Crisis

The year was 1828, and South Carolina was dying in the sweltering heat of August. The paved roads that had once provided excellent transportation to traders and tourists alike were altogether abandoned, helplessly desolate besides the occasional passerby. Her dockyards, once teeming with shipbuilders and trading companies, became little more than wooden dust collectors. It was only a few months after Congress had pushed their infamous “Tariff of Abominations” to the States, but the Palmetto State was already suffering. The reason was simple: the bill had destroyed all incentive for foreign nations to trade with the Southern States. This destruction of incentive was no accident. Indeed, the “Tariff of Abominations” was created with one goal in mind: to specifically discourage foreign trade to and from the United States. It was certainly effective in that regard, and it worked by drastically raising the American tax on imported foreign goods. This, in turn, destroyed the economy of the Southern states, who made the majority of their income by trading with nations like Great Britain and France.1

There was perhaps no State greater affected by the tariff than South Carolina. South Carolina was, prior to the adoption of the tariff, a state that relied primarily upon foreign trade to keep its very government in operation. Without European economic support, every state in the South was forced to buy all of their products from Northern manufacturers, who used their artificial monopolies to attack and dominate the Southern economy.2 The Northern states, on the other hand, received nothing but benefits from the effects of the “Tariff of Abominations.” Ironically, the non-slave holding States effectively chained up and forced their slave-holding counterparts into economic slavery. Southern businesses, because foreign nations refused to trade with them, quickly collapsed into financial ruin. The few Southern firms that remained were thoroughly abused by their Northern neighbors, who used their newfound monopoly to force states like South Carolina to sell their cotton and other raw products to the North at dirt cheap prices. The few jobs that were offered to citizens of Southern states quickly evaporated, and with them, so too did the various small businesses. As time went on, the Southern states grew increasingly restless. Standing president John Quincy Adams, the man who had signed the bill into law, almost refused to speak on the matter in fear of jeopardizing his upcoming bid at reelection—a reelection, that, with Adams’ expansive northern influence, was almost certain. The Southern States, it seemed, were cursed to suffer in silence.

An advertisement promoting the infamous “Tariff of Abominations” (1828) | Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Or, rather, it certainly seemed that way. All was not lost for the people south of the Mason-Dixie line, as former war hero Andrew Jackson had just announced his appearance into the presidential race! The war hero’s reappearance did not come as a surprise to many Americans, as Jackson’s friends had spent the last four years convincing voters that the previous election, the election of 1824, was concluded on the basis of a “corrupt bargain” between Adams and the Speaker of the House, Henry Clay. The controversy emerged from the fact that the House, not the electoral college, had to decide the winner of the election, due to the lack of a clear winner.3 The Jacksonians believed that John Adams was elected by the House in an unfair manner, as Jackson himself had received the most electoral votes. Nevertheless, Old Hickory was determined to not let the same mistake happen twice. This time, in 1828, he had a trick up his sleeve: the horrible state of the South. He decided to capture the Southern states by promising them a huge reduction in tariff rates, and a return to the tariff rates that had previously made them wealthy.4 Eager to prove his absolute devotion to the Southern people, Jackson even went so far as to adopt John C. Calhoun, a popular figurehead in South Carolina, as his vice president. With his southern support secured, and his “corrupt bargain” scandal in the national headlines, Jackson’s presidential election was all but guaranteed, and he easily defeated Adams.

The first few months of President Andrew Jackson’s election were absent of any discussion of the tariff. South Carolina and the rest of the Southern states refused to give up hope, and still believed in the President’s campaign promises. As the days turned into months, however, they began to lose faith. While Adams still held the executive office, Jackson’s sudden silence on the matter worried his Southern supporters. Much to the satisfaction of Jackson’s northern voters, he continued to sit on the issue of the tariff, unwilling to even speak on the matter. John C. Calhoun decided to push on without Jackson, and, on one of his frequent trips to South Carolina, decided that South Carolina had suffered enough. Rather than wait for Jackson to adopt the tariff as a topic of discussion once more, Calhoun was forced to take matters into his own hands. The politician refused to stand by and watch his home state suffer without representation any longer.5 Calhoun quickly found himself in a very peculiar situation. On one hand, he knew that openly betraying Jackson’s trust would be equivalent to political suicide. He could lose his bid at the vice presidency, and, even worse, he could lose all of his influence in the Federal government. On the other, he understood that the people of South Carolina were counting on him to fix the tariff problem. If he did nothing, he would be betraying both his people and his entire way of life. After weighing his options, Calhoun eventually decided to follow the examples of the founding fathers when they defended the Constitution. He resolved to speak up in defense of South Carolina, but, to stay one step ahead of his political opponents, he would defend them anonymously. Freeing himself from the weights of political responsibility, Calhoun picked up his pen against the Federal government, and drafted a document that would eventually threaten to rip the nation apart.

Calhoun finished drafting his magnum opus, the South Carolina Exposition and Protest, in December of 1828. The importance of the Exposition that Calhoun had poured his heart into cannot be understated; the Nullification Crisis could not hope to succeed without it. Ironically enough, its core ideas, and indeed its power, did not directly originate from the Vice President himself. Calhoun, because of his obsession with eighteenth-century literature, realized that the “Tariff of Abominations” problem attacking South Carolina had already been solved by the founding fathers of the United States. Indeed, most of his Exposition would center around the adoption of the “nullification doctrine” expressed and endorsed by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in their Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions.6

Although Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were the first published advocates of the doctrine of nullification, they did not invent the idea themselves either. No, the doctrine of the concurrent majority and the ideas behind nullification, though redefined by Calhoun, were as old as the original thirteen colonies themselves. Nullification, in its purest form, is simply another check upon the Federal government of the United States. Supporters of the doctrine believed that the states had the right to “veto” mandates from the Federal government, just like the President has the right to “veto” acts of congress. The doctrine, in practice, would allow the several states to nullify, or veto, any Federal mandate that they deemed unconstitutional. At a time when any state could effectively secede from the Union, Calhoun believed that the doctrine could efficiently prevent secession, civil war, and Federal tyranny. Nullification, Calhoun noted, would also finally allow the people of South Carolina and the South to rid themselves of the “Tariff Abominations.”7

With his Exposition finally complete, Calhoun made an extra effort to keep his identity a secret as he sent the document to the government of South Carolina, right under the nose of his own Party. The State legislature looked favorably upon the doctrine, and it would eventually become so popular within South Carolina’s government that the legislative body would print over 5,000 copies of it. After some debate, however, South Carolina’s legislature ultimately decided that it would continue to believe that Jackson would uphold his promises, despite his newfound silence on the topic. The people of South Carolina believed that adopting such a controversial doctrine would destabilize the relationship between the South and the Federal Government. Although Calhoun’s “Protest and Exposition” had failed to move the government of South Carolina, it wouldn’t die there.8 

A portrait of senator John C. Calhoun (1822) | Courtesy of the Wikimedia Foundation

By January of 1830, the small fire of nullification had evolved to an inferno—an inferno that would quickly smash into the United States Senate. It was a cool morning in January, and the senators were preparing to debate over the independent sovereignty of the Western territories, specifically their right to address the issue of slavery. An argument quickly emerged, and, as it escalated, one senator brought up the doctrine of Nullification right in front of Calhoun, who was overseeing the debate. Thus, what originally began as a simple debate over slavery in the Western territories rapidly grew into a full-fledged debate over the very nature of the American constitution as a whole. At the center of it all were two senators, Robert Haynes and Daniel Webster. Haynes, a Democratic-Republican of South Carolina, stood in the defense of the doctrine of Nullification, and Webster, a National-Republican from Massachusetts, argued against it.9 Calhoun couldn’t believe his ears: the doctrine of nullification was not only being debated right in front of him, but the senators were specifically referencing his “Protest and Exposition!” The Vice President refused to do nothing but watch as his brainchild was viciously attacked. After the first day of the debate, he sought out the defenders of the doctrine and, in private, began extensively tutoring them on the subject. Throughout the argument in the Senate, Calhoun would send senator Haynes and his friends a stream of handwritten letters elaborating on the points that he made in his now-famous Exposition. With their newfound confidence, the defenders of nullification began to strike back at Webster and his group of senators. Thus, the most celebrated debate in the Senate’s history erupted. The epic clash lasted longer than an entire week, and reached into every corner of the Senate. The debate stood alone in its importance, and it threatened to tear the entire legislative body apart at the seams. No senator could escape the awesome gravity of the situation, and every single one of them were dragged into it regardless of their individual party or political ideology.10

As the conversation around nullification grew louder and louder in the south, President Andrew Jackson was forced to act upon the promises he had made to the southern people almost four years prior. As a tribute to the people he had largely ignored for four years, he signed the Tariff of 1832 into law in July 14. Although the bill was certainly a step in the right direction, many poor, broken Southerners felt wholly betrayed by their Federal Government. Perhaps they had a right to feel that way, however, as it had taken their government over four years to reduce the duty imposed by a measly 10 percent, from 45 to 35. South Carolina could wait no longer. The States’ Rights party rapidly gained power within the Palmetto State, and, after gaining the majority edge over their centrist alternatives, called a state convention over the doctrine of nullification and its interpretation. Unsurprisingly, and by a vote of 136 to 26, the “South Carolina Ordinance of Nullification” was officially enacted into law on November 24, 1832. The government of South Carolina had effectively nullified the tariff, and, as far as its citizens were concerned, it no longer existed.11 John C. Calhoun, upon receiving word from the South Carolina legislature, ultimately realized that he could not both defend his brainchild in the Senate and hold his position as the Vice President of the United States. In addition, he was also plagued by the consequences of his infamous stance against the Federal government, including being dropped as Jackson’s running mate from the upcoming presidential election. After weighing his options, Calhoun ultimately saw only one way forward. So it was that John C. Calhoun would be the first Vice President in the history of the United States to officially resign from office. He left his post in December to become a senator for South Carolina, so that he could fight against the senators wishing to end nullification for good. South Carolina, in the meantime, was readying for war. Its government used the little funds it had to buy up a large collection of arms, and it raised a volunteer army of 25,000 people in just a few months. Everyone in South Carolina was on guard, for they were all too aware of the severity of their decision to challenge the Federal government. Although they acknowledged that the Federal government would not take kindly to active resistance against its laws, they were nonetheless ready to die for their right to self governance.

A portrait of President Andrew Jackson (1838) | Courtesy of the National Archives

South Carolina was right to be wary, for when the news of South Carolina’s decision reached the ears of President Andrew Jackson, he immediately responded by sending warships to Charleston harbor. After only a few months, Jackson succeeded in getting Congress to pass the “Force bill,” a law that officially gave him the ability to make war on South Carolina if they failed to readopt the tariff.12 The entire nation held its breath, for no one knew just who would blink first: Jackson or Calhoun.

As it turns out, the Vice-President-turned-senator cared too much about his state to see it go to war with the entire Union. While Jackson and South Carolina were readying for war, he was busy drafting the “Compromise Tariff of 1833” with his friends in the Senate. South Carolina was not going to be dissolved quietly. The citizens of South Carolina immediately got to work building defensive forts, issuing blue uniforms to the various militias, and even began training in the streets, eager to keep Jackson’s forces from occupying even an inch of soil. At the same time, the government of South Carolina mirrored its people–and was readying for war by organizing the various militias into different regiments and reaching out to neighboring states for economic and military support.13 On the other side of the border, Andrew Jackson was already hard at work drafting up plans to take South Carolina by storm. His plan involved the capture of Columbia, the capitol of South Carolina, by any means necessary. Every reporter in the nation flocked to South Carolina as the people of the United States looked on in horror. At the center of it all stood John C. Calhoun and Henry Clay, two men willing to do anything to prevent a great American tragedy. They worked like madmen, feverishly revising and editing their “Compromise Tariff” in an attempt to get it passed through Congress in time. In constructing the Compromise Tariff to receive a majority vote in Congress, the two friends frequently sought the advice of their fellow senators. In this way, they were able to create a document that balanced the needs of the Federal government with those of South Carolina. Calhoun knew that failure to pass the bill through Congress would spell the death of thousands of men, each of whom had done nothing to warrant such a horrible and pointless death. To make matters worse, Calhoun had only adopted the doctrine of nullification to save the State that he held so close to heart. The very thing he had worked so hard to prevent was quickly becoming a reality. Calhoun would, in saving South Carolina from the fires of economic depression, condemn the State to the fires of war. If he failed here, he would have to live with the Shakespearean idea that he had destroyed his beautiful home by trying to save it.

As Jackson’s army finished lining up on the borders of South Carolina, Calhoun finished his second greatest piece of literature, a compromise between the Federal government and the people of South Carolina. As the new tariff was signed into law, Jackson hesitated, wanting to view the reaction from South Carolina before using military force. Nothing could stop Calhoun as he charged for South Carolina, hell-bent on informing the state of the existence of a compromise tariff as soon as physically possible. He finally reached the legislature, and, after throwing open the doors to the State legislature, presented the new tariff to the body of men who would soon shape American history forever. The various politicians within South Carolina knew all too well that a rejection of the compromise could thrust the Union into perpetual chaos. After hastily reviewing the tariff, the government of South Carolina officially adopted the new tariff, ending the Nullification Crisis once and for all.14

Some years later, as Andrew Jackson was exiting a carriage, a reporter asked if he had any regrets on his actions during the crisis. To the reporter he replied, “After eight years as President I have only two regrets: that I have not shot Henry Clay or hanged John C. Calhoun.”15

  1. William Freehling, Prelude to Civil War: The Nullification Controversy in South Carolina, 1816-1836 (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 361-362.
  2. William Freehling, Prelude to Civil War: The Nullification Controversy in South Carolina, 1816-1836 (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 361-362.
  3.  William G. Morgan, “John Quincy Adams Versus Andrew Jackson: Their Biographers And The “Corrupt Bargain” Charge,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly, No. 1 (1967): 21, 44-46.
  4. Encyclopædia Britannica, March, 2013, s.v. “United States Presidential Election of 1828,” by Alison Eldridge.
  5. Margaret L. Coit, John C. Calhoun (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1950), 160-161.
  6. Caleb William Loring, Nullification, Secession, Webster’s Argument, and the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions: Considered in Reference to the Constitution and Historically (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1893), 90-91.
  7. John C. Calhoun, Union and Liberty (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund Inc., 2014), 252-253.
  8. Fredric Bancroft, Calhoun and the South Carolina Nullification Movement (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1928), 48-49.
  9. Herman Belz, The Webster-Hayne Debate on the Nature of the Union. (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2012), 3-34.
  10. Caleb William Loring, Nullification, Secession, Webster’s Argument, and the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions: Considered in Reference to the Constitution and Historically (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1893), 90-91.
  11. Paul Leicester Ford, The Federalist: A commentary on the Constitution of the United States by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay edited with notes, illustrative documents and a copious index by Paul Leicester Ford (New York : Henry Holt and Company, 1898), 1-5.
  12. William W. Freehling, The Road to Disunion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 282.
  13. William Freehling, Prelude to Civil War: The Nullification Controversy in South Carolina, 1816-1836 (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 275-276.
  14. H. Newcomb Morse, “The Foundations and Meaning of Secession,” Stetson Law Review 15, no. 2 (1986): 422.
  15. Jon Meacham, American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House (New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2009), 26-27.

Tags from the story

Andrew Jackson

Doctrine of Nullification

John C. Calhoun

Nullification Crisis

Tariff of Abominations

Greyson Addicott

Hey, I’m Greyson Addicott! I graduated from St. Mary’s University in the spring of 2022, and I am currently pursuing my J.D. at Baylor Law! I enjoy reading, studying, and manifesting those passions in writing.

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Recent Comments

Rafael Portillo

Thank your for this article. We live in what we now call the United states. It may not be perfect now but it is very much better than how it was back in the day. When Jackson became president he arrived with promises and goals that were never made a reality. I came to the conclusion during this article that Jackson was just a man with a loud mouth and no actual goals to make a movement and help his people. Calhoun on the other hand wanted to protect his people and his home. It was very interesting to know that freedom of speech wasn’t really respected. Calhoun spoke freely about his opinions and ideas but Jackson rejected that and was quick to judge and punish. At the end of the day Calhoun did the right thing and made the south better.



7:55 am

Eugenio Gonzalez

The author does an excellent job of making the historical event come to life. A compelling narrative keeps you reading to discover what happened with the nullification crisis. I would also like to highlight the incredible labor that the author did with the introduction; it helps the reader understand why the south was upset with the tariffs and how the north benefited from the new tariff. 



7:55 am

Rodney Jones

In this article I learned about he “Protective Tarrif” to fight against tarrifs that way people like farmers business owners and regular workers could protect their right to keep their job. This was also for southern states to rpotect their slave owning rights as well. This article was written very clearly and I could understand and visualize everything in the writing. 



7:55 am

Helena Griffith

The tariff of ambitions, which Congress had imposed, was established with a single objective in mind. It was intended for international trade to decline and for people to lose interest in engaging in it. It was a bad notion that caused many individuals, particularly farmers and suppliers, to go bankrupt. This had the unintended consequence of wrecking the economy and hurting the US. This ultimately infuriated a lot of people, sparked outrage, and ignited American politics. Because it takes place within the same time period as what we are currently learning about, this relates to what we are studying. The great depression should officially begin at this point. In class, we are now studying economics and the pros and cons of money for people. Additionally, we are learning the distinction between paper money and actual currency, such as gold and silver. Excellent and thorough article. I had no idea that Calhoun’s professional future would have been in jeopardy had he spoken openly about his opinions on the tariff and its impact on the south. It was intriguing to learn that South Carolina was genuinely getting ready for battle and was willing to face an army to defend their principles. The comment from Jackson shows him as a ruthless and heartless leader, which supports the argument for why he went to war.



7:55 am

Dejah Garcia

What’s interesting article ! The author does a awesome job of including diction and imagery that brings the text to life in order to grab the audiences attention. This was written with great grammar and history facts. One of the topics that stood out to me the most in this article was the, “protective tariff”. The tariff was used for business farm owners in order to protect certain right to maintain and keep their Jobs in the southern land.



7:55 am

Vianey Centeno

Greyson, this was a really well-written piece. Apart from what I learnt in lecture, I didn’t even know much about the nullification crisis, but this essay did a wonderful job of educating me. I admire how deeply you probed the problem and what transpired. The length of the essay really helped pack in the detail, and I particularly like your word choice. Good work.



7:55 am

Gabriella Parra

Amazingly written article!! You have such a strong writing style, and I especially enjoyed the buildup to the crisis point! I’m glad you focused on John C. Calhoun when discussing the Nullification Crisis. It was great to get further insight into a politician I’ve read about but haven’t researched deeply. Calhoun’s convictions must have been very strong for him to resign as vice president. Luckily, that’s exactly what the nation needed because he was able to produce the compromise tariff as a senator. Again, I can’t praise your writing style enough!



7:55 am

Kayla Braxton-Young

This is a really interesting article. I enjoyed reading it. The featured image caught my attention and actually kept me motivated to keep reading. I really like how you focused on the crisis that happened. I don’t really know much about the nullification crisis but reading this article informed me a lot about this topic. I appreciate that.



7:55 am

Emily Rodriguez

This was an extremely informative and well written article. I love how you drew up the scene for the reader to picture in the first paragraph of your article, it was a great way to open up the narration. I can truly tell you did your research, and I admire that you were able to pack your article with so much useful information. You were very descriptive and told the story in an easy-to-follow way.



7:55 am

Guadalupe Altamira

Very good article! This historical moment was really pictured in my mind when I read this. I love the way it’s written and the depth put into it. I didn’t really know that much about the nullification crisis and it’s very interesting how it involved and hurt South Carolina. It has a great amount of detail and is very understandable. Overall great article.



7:55 am

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