South Carolina takes on the Feds

By Parke Pierson
8/11/2009 • Andrew Jackson, Civil War Causes, Gathering Storm

When Andrew Jackson wrested the White House from John Quincy Adams in 1828, Southerners—particularly South Carolinians—breathed a collective sigh of relief. Jackson, the reasoning went, would surely repeal the hated Tariff of 1828.

But it didn’t quite work out that way. Ironically, the Tariff of 1828, which raised the prices of imported manufactured goods needed by the agrarian South, had been partially crafted before the election by South Carolinian John C. Calhoun, Adams’ vice president.

Calhoun believed the tariff bill was packed with measures so odious even to New England manufacturers that Congress would vote it down. Adams would take the blame, and Jackson, a Democrat like Calhoun, would become president.

But the tariff passed, and Adams signed it into law—losing in the process the Southern political support that helped elect Jackson.

Despite his involvement, Calhoun was so disgusted with the matter that he wrote, anonymously, the South Carolina Exposition and Protest in which he advocated states’ rights over federal policy.

He argued that South Carolina had the right to nullify the tariff for its economic well-being. His state, dependent on the plantation economy and suffering due to a decline in cotton prices, was particularly hard hit by what Carolinians referred to as the levies in the “Tariff of Abominations.”

Jackson also claimed South Carolina as his home state, and Calhoun, who stayed on as Jackson’s vice president, had reason to hope that “Old Hickory” would repeal or lower the tariff. But Jackson took a Nationalist stance and supported the tariff.

Resulting tensions between Jackson and Calhoun festered, and went public at a Jefferson Day dinner in April 1830 when the president, glaring at Calhoun, toasted “Our Union; it must be preserved.”

Calhoun offered his own rejoining toast: “The Union, next to our liberty, most dear. May we always remember that it can only be preserved by distributing equally the benefits and burdens of the Union.”

Two years later, Calhoun resigned the vice presidency to serve in the Senate for South Carolina and organize the effort to nullify, or ignore, the tariff.

That same year, the Tariff of 1832 lowered duties on imported goods, but not enough to stop the state of South Carolina from passing an ordinance of nullification relating to both tariffs. South Carolina was defying federal law by stating that the tariffs were unenforceable within the state’s borders.

Jackson promptly declared nullification illegal and got Congress to pass the Force Act, allowing him to send eight Navy ships and 5,000 soldiers to Charleston. South Carolina, meanwhile, began to raise its own military forces.

The president seethed at the disdain for his authority and threatened to hang the leaders of the nullification movement. Had that threat become a reality it might have presented the spectacle of a president hanging his former vice president. A shooting war seemed to be just around the corner.

Before triggers were pulled and gallows outfitted with fresh rope, however, Kentucky statesman Henry Clay managed to calm things down in Congress and have yet another tariff drafted that lowered levels even more. With the crisis averted, Jackson called home his troops.

South Carolinians and other Southerners realized that if a successful states’ rights challenge were going to be mounted against federal authority, one state could not go it alone. Success would require a number of states working together. That theory would be put to the test in coming years.