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This week in history: John C. Calhoun and the Nullification Crisis

John C. Calhoun
John C. Calhoun
Associated Press

On Dec. 19, 1828, Vice President of the United States John C. Calhoun wrote “South Carolina Exposition and Protest,” a document that greatly exacerbated the Nullification Crisis and led for the first time to the real possibility of Southern secession.

The crisis began in May 1828 when Congress passed the Tariff of 1828, which was designed to encourage Northern industry by levying high import duties on cheaper British goods. While Northern states stood to profit handsomely from the tariff, Southern states were not happy as they would now have to pay more overall for manufactured goods.

Though President John Quincy Adams, a New Englander, had reservations about the tariff, he signed it into law. Calhoun, a South Carolinian, vigorously opposed it. It was not the first time a sitting vice president disagreed with an administration's major policy. During the presidency of John Adams, John Quincy's father, Vice President Thomas Jefferson had taken exception to the Alien and Sedition Acts, and anonymously wrote the Kentucky Resolutions that attacked them.

Calhoun was a strong believer in states' rights and feared the power of the federal government to intervene so strongly in the Southern economy. The unspoken fear, of course, was that if the federal government could levy a tariff to profoundly alter the economy of the South, was the institution of slavery safe from federal interference? Could not the North, in the guise of instituting new economic policies, virtually prohibit slavery?

Calhoun decided to pen an argument enunciating his views on the relationship between the federal government and the state governments. The “South Carolina Exposition and Protest” spelled out Calhoun's position, not only on what was increasingly being refereed to in the South as the “Tariff of Abominations,” but also on what he saw as the limits of federal government.

In the document, Calhoun attacks the North as short-sighted, looking out for only its own interests and its hopes of tying the Southern economy closer to its own. Calhoun wrote: “We (the South) cultivate certain staples for the supply of the general market of the world; and they (the North) manufacture almost exclusively for the home market. Their object in the tariff is to keep down foreign competition, in order to obtain a monopoly of the domestic market ….”

Calhoun then went on to write about what he perceived as the potential evils of majority rule in the American republic and the necessity for proper checks and balances: “An unchecked majority is despotism — and government is free, and will be permanent in proportion to the number, complexity and efficiency of the checks by which its powers are controlled.”

The central argument of the “Exposition” was that the federal government must recognize a state's right to nullify within the state any federal law that it disagreed with. If the federal government did not recognize this right, Calhoun wrote, that state was within its rights to secede from the Union.

In his biography “Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times,” historian H.W. Brands wrote: “To this last assertion Calhoun's long document ultimately reduced. The vice president claimed for South Carolina a veto on the actions of the federal government: a right to nullify federal laws as they pertained to the state. Whether the federal government would honor the claim was the question that hung over Washington in the months after Calhoun penned his exposition.”

The “Exposition” eventually led to South Carolina adopting the “Ordinances of Nullification,” which accepted much of Calhoun's theory as a matter of practical law. Like Jefferson in 1798, Calhoun authored his work anonymously, and as Adams' administration came to an end, Calhoun had high hopes that the incoming president of 1829, Andrew Jackson, himself a slave owner, would agree with his interpretation of constitutional law. Unusual in American politics, Calhoun had jumped candidates in the 1828 election and now served as vice president under Jackson.

Jon Meacham wrote in his book, “American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House”: “Calhoun kept his authorship of the 1828 document secret, and the vehemence of his views quiet. He believed that the white-haired general about to take the presidential oath would heed his counsel to slash the tariff, relieve the South, and calm fears of future interference with the region's way of life. Then, Calhoun hoped, his own hour would strike, and carry him to the White House.”

Jackson had no more sympathy for Calhoun's position than did Adams, and the two were soon at odds over the issues of nullification and secession. The tension came to a head in April 1830, when the two attended a dinner celebrating the deceased Thomas Jefferson's birthday in Washington.

In his book “The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln,” historian Sean Wilentz wrote of the historic banquet: “The gathering had been called by southerners and westerners sympathetic to Calhoun, and one toast after another proclaimed state-rights slogans and attacked sectional favoritism by the federal government. Jackson … raised his glass, glowered directly at Calhoun, and, as if issuing a dueler's challenge, gravely offered his own toast: 'Our Union — it must be preserved.' … though Calhoun's toast in reply was perfectly calm, its wordiness betrayed that he was on the defensive: 'The Union — next to our liberty the most dear; may we all remember that it can only be preserved by respecting the rights of the states and the distributing equally the benefits and burdens of the Union.' The breach was now public, and within weeks would become bitter political warfare ….”

Eventually, Calhoun opted not to continue as vice president, and instead ran for the Senate. Jackson offered a watered-down tariff that placated most Southerners in 1832. When South Carolina stated its dissatisfaction and continued talk of secession, Congress passed the Force Bill, which would allow the federal government to send a military force into South Carolina to collect the import duties and prevent secession.

Under the leadership of Sen. Henry Clay of Kentucky, Congress brokered a new compromise tariff. Aware that it could not effectively challenge the federal government alone, South Carolina accepted the compromise and repealed its ordinance of nullification in 1833. The crisis was over and the Civil War was delayed for another 30 years.

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is also the co-developer of the History Challenge iPhone/iPad apps. Email: