The South Carolina Nullification Controversy

By the late 1820's, the north was becoming increasingly industrialized, and the south was remaining predominantly agricultural.

In 1828, Congress passed a high protective tariff that infuriated the southern states because they felt it only benefited the industrialized north. For example, a high tariff on imports increased the cost of British Textiles. This tariff benefited American producers of cloth—mostly in the north. It shrunk English demand for southern raw cotton and increased the final cost of finished goods to American buyers. The southerners looked to Vice President John C. Calhoun from South Carolina for leadership against what they labeled the "Tariff of Abominations."

Calhoun argued for— the doctrine of "Nullification." According to Calhoun, the federal government existed at the will of the states. If a state found a federal law unconstitutional and detrimental to its sovereign interests, it would have the right to "nullify" that law within its borders. Calhoun advanced the position that a state could declare a national law void.

In 1832, Henry Clay pushed through Congress a new tariff bill, with lower rates than the Tariff of Abominations, but still too high for the southerners. A majority of states-rights proponents had won the South Carolina State House in the recent 1832 election and their reaction was swift. The South Carolina Ordinance of Nullification was enacted into law on November 24, 1832. As far as South Carolina was concerned, there was no tariff. A line had been drawn.

Jackson rightly regarded this states-rights challenge as so serious that he asked Congress to enact legislation permitting him to use federal troops to enforce federal laws in the face of nullification. Fortunately, an armed confrontation was avoided when Congress, led by the efforts of Henry Clay, revised the tariff with a compromise bill.

In retrospect, Jackson's strong, decisive support for the Union was one of the great moments of his Presidency. If nullification had been successful, could secession have been far behind?

Source: The South Carolina Nullification Controversy
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