Nullification Crisis of 1832: Precursor to Civil War

Calhoun of South Carolina Was Staunch Defender of States' Rights

The nullification crisis arose in 1832 when leaders of South Carolina advanced the idea that a state did not have to follow a federal law and could, in effect, "nullify" the law. The state passed the South Carolina Act of Nullification in November 1832, which said in effect that South Carolina could ignore federal law, or nullify it, if the state found the law to be damaging to its interests or deemed it unconstitutional.

This effectively meant the state could override any federal law.

The idea that "states' rights" superseded federal law was promoted by South Carolinian  John C. Calhoun, vice president in Andrew Jackson's first term as president, one of the most experienced and powerful politicians in the country at the time. And the resulting crisis was, to some extent, a precursor to the secession crisis that would trigger the Civil War 30 years later, in which South Carolina also was a primary player.

Calhoun and the Nullification Crisis

Calhoun, who is most widely remembered as a defender of the institution of slavery, became outraged in the late 1820s by the imposition of tariffs that he felt unfairly penalized the South. A particular tariff passed in 1828 raised taxes on imports and outraged Southerners, and Calhoun became a forceful advocate against the new tariff.

The 1828 tariff was so controversial in various regions of the country that it became known as the Tariff of Abominations.

Calhoun said he believed the law had been designed to take advantage of the Southern states. The South was largely an agricultural economy with relatively little manufacturing. So finished goods were often imported from Europe, which meant a tariff on foreign goods would fall heavier on the South, and it also reduced demand for imports, which then reduced demand for the raw cotton the South sold to Britain.

The North was much more industrialized and produced many of its own goods. In fact, the tariff protected industry in the North from foreign competition since it made imports more expensive.

In Calhoun's estimation, the Southern states, having been treated unfairly, were under no obligation to follow the law. That line of argument, of course, was highly controversial, since it undermined the Constitution.

Calhoun wrote an essay advancing a theory of nullification in which he made a legal case for states to disregard some federal laws. At first, Calhoun wrote his thoughts anonymously, in the style of many political pamphlets of the era. But eventually, his identity as the author became known.

In the early 1830s, with the issue of a tariff again rising to prominence, Calhoun resigned his position as vice president, returned to South Carolina, and was elected to the Senate, where he promoted his idea of nullification.

Jackson was ready for an armed conflict -- he got Congress to pass a law allowing him to use federal troops to enforce federal laws if necessary. But ultimately the crisis was resolved without the use of force. In 1833 a compromise led by the legendary Sen. Henry Clay of Kentucky was reached ​on a new tariff.

But the nullification crisis revealed the deep divisions between the North and the South and showed they could cause enormous problems -- and eventually they split the Union and secession followed, with the first state to secede being South Carolina in December 1860, and the die was cast for the Civil War that followed.