On this day in 1832, President Andrew Jackson issues the Nullification Proclamation. In it, he claimed that states may not declare federal laws unconstitutional and then refuse to obey them.
It was an event that contributed to the tension between North and South in the years before the Civil War.
The Jackson-era nullification crisis came about due to the Tariff Act of 1828. Southerners believed that the tariffs protected Northern interests, to the detriment of the South. The matter became somewhat controversial and Congress modified the tariffs in 1832. Jackson signed the modified provisions, but South Carolina was not satisfied. The state appointed a convention to consider the matter.
On November 24, 1832, South Carolina’s convention determined that the tariffs were unconstitutional, and it passed an Ordinance of Nullification. The ordinance stated that tariffs would no longer be collected within South Carolina’s boundaries. Within a few weeks, Jackson issued his Nullification Proclamation. It asserted that states could not nullify federal laws; Jackson stated that he would use force, as needed, to implement federal law. He asked Congress to pass a law—a Force Act—to this effect.
The nullification crisis came to an end with the Compromise Tariff Act of 1833, which steadily reduced tariffs over the course of nine years. The objectionable protective tariff was to be eliminated by 1842. However, Congress also passed the Force Act, as Jackson had requested. South Carolina rescinded its nullification of the tariff laws, but it defiantly nullified the Force Act instead.
One last note, in conclusion: South Carolina’s stance at least attempted to echo a position taken by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison a few decades earlier. In 1798-99, they’d helped Virginia and Kentucky pass resolutions against the federal Alien & Sedition Acts. These resolutions were definitely a bit more temperate in tone than South Carolina’s 1832 ordinance, yet both of the resolutions spoke of a federal government that was a mere agent of the sovereign states.
The Virginia resolution declared that if the federal government exercised powers not granted to it, then the states “have the right, and are in duty bound, to interpose for arresting the progress of the evil.” The Kentucky resolution declared that the states “have the unquestionable right to judge of its infraction; and that a nullification, by those sovereignties, of all unauthorized acts done under colour of that instrument, is the rightful remedy.” Virginia and Kentucky, nevertheless, reaffirmed their commitment to the Union and sought peaceful resolution.
For those of you who are following my Federalist Papers series, all of these concerns echo the discussions in those papers! How can we create a national government strong enough to accomplish its intended purposes, but still leave **all other** power to the states? You can see that it was a constant subject of discussion during the early years of our country.
What a healthy state of affairs! If only more Americans would spend time discussing this delicate balance between state and national power today.
- Andrew Jackson, Proclamation 43—Regarding the Nullifying Laws of South Carolina (December 10, 1832)
- Force Act of 1833 (March 2, 1833)
- H.W. Brands, Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times (2005)
- South Carolina Ordinance of Nullification (November 24, 1832)
- Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions (1798) (reprinted HERE)
- William J. Cooper, Jr. & Thomas E. Terrill, The American South: A History (2009) (Vol. I)