Quick Study:

Andrew Jackson and the nullifcation crisis

By Joan Hennessy
Andrew Jackson during his days as military leader.
Andrew Jackson during his days as military leader.
Illustration via Library of Congress
Question: How is history like a minefield?

    Answer: Don't go there unless you know how to find the explosives.
    In a now infamous interview with the Washington Examiner, President Donald Trump mused about the Civil War with sweeping generalizations that left historians and political pundits gobsmacked.
   “I mean,” Trump said, “had Andrew Jackson been a little later, you wouldn't have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart, and he was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War. He said, ‘There's no reason for this.’ People don't realize, you know, the Civil War, you think about it, why?”
    Trump then added, “People don't ask that question. But why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?”
    Pundits speculated that Trump was referring to Jackson’s role in the Nullification Crisis (1832-1833). The Civil War -- which began 16 years after Jackson's death -- and nullification both involved intense debates over states' rights and secession vs. federal power and preservation of the union. But the Nullification Crisis revolved around a tariff dispute. The Civil War was fought over slavery – and Jackson owned slaves.
    While we don’t want to guess what Trump might have been thinking, we can provide an overview of the Nullification Crisis, along with sources and links for further study:

Background – the administration of John Adams: Legislatures in Kentucky and Virginia approved resolutions in response to the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 (which, in part, restricted speech criticizing the government).
    The Virginia resolution, written by James Madison, argued that with the Alien and Sedition Acts, Congress was exercising “a power not delegated by the Constitution, but on the contrary, expressly and positively forbidden by one of the amendments thereto; a power, which more than any other, ought to produce universal alarm, because it is leveled against that right of freely examining public characters and measures, and of free communication among the people thereon, which has ever been justly deemed, the only effectual guardian of every other right.”
    Decades later, these resolutions would play a role in the Nullification Crisis.

The administration of John Quincy Adams: On April 22, 1828, the House of Representatives passed the Tariff of 1828. Known as the “tariff of abominations,” itsought to protect northern and western agricultural products from competition with foreign imports,” recounts the U.S. House of Representatives website. “However, the resulting tax on foreign goods would raise the cost of living in the South and would cut into the profits of New England's industrialists.” John Quincy Adams signed it.

Lines drawn: Jackson (1767–1845) took office as president in 1829, having defeated John Quincy Adams. Both men had the same vice president -- John C. Calhoun of South Carolina.
     A noted statesman, Calhoun advocated the South’s right to nullify federal laws. And according to the Bill of Rights Institute's website, the ideas in the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions were a precursor to Calhoun’s arguments about state power. "However, during the nullification controversy of the 1830s, (James) Madison rejected the legitimacy of nullification, and argued that it was not part of the Virginia position in 1798."
    Jackson, for his part, thought nullification threatened the union.
    In 1830, during a dinner marking the 87th anniversary of Thomas Jefferson’s birth, Jackson offered this toast: “Our Federal Union --it must be preserved!” And Calhoun countered, “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 distributing equally the benefit and burden of the union.”

The tariff of 1832: This new tariff “only slightly modified the Tariff of 1828,” recounts the Encyclopedia Britannica website. The South Carolina legislature nullified the tariff. 

 Proclamation to the People of South Carolina: In December 1832, Jackson made a lengthy argument for the supremacy of federal law: “The laws of the United States must be executed. I have no discretionary power on the subject -- my duty is emphatically pronounced in the Constitution. Those who told you that you might peaceably prevent their execution, deceived you -- they could not have been deceived themselves. They know that a forcible opposition could alone prevent the execution of the laws, and they know that such opposition must be repelled. Their object is disunion, ... be not deceived by names; disunion, by armed force, is TREASON. Are you really ready to incur its guilt?”
     That same month, Calhoun resigned as vice president.

Force Act: After Jackson's proclamation, Congress approved the Force Act in 1833, authorizing use of the military to enforce the tariff acts. But at the same time, another bill (the Compromise Tariff of 1833), brokered by Sen. Henry Clay of Kentucky, lowered tariffs during the next decade. South Carolina accepted the compromise, and the crisis ended.

The upshot: Clearly, Jackson was furious -- with South Carolina and with Calhoun.
     Jackson's biography on the White House website says that during the crisis, the president, "privately threatened to hang Calhoun." In addition, the website for the Miller Center at the University of the Virginia says that Jackson "spoiled for a fight," while in Congress leaders searched for a compromise.
    But the website for the Hermitage, Jackson's home in Tennessee, notes, "Jackson’s actions prevented a break in the union as well as setting precedents that Abraham Lincoln would later use to oppose secession."

    To know more:


     The Complicated John Adams

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