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South Carolina takes on the Feds

By Parke Pierson 
Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: August 11, 2009 
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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. 


6 Responses to “South Carolina takes on the Feds”


  1. 1
    Greg S. says:

    I like this article, because it shows how South Carolina’s thought they were safe when Andrew Jackson was elected, but this was the opposite of what happened. Jackson supported the union more than a single state, his home state even. I also like the fact that a native South Carolinian caused all the problems anyways. Calhoun should never have written the original tariff anyways, he thought that it would not be passed but that was a mistake because it did get passed. Then, to recover from his blunder he even went to anonymously write that the states should not have to pay the tariffs. In all, this article is interesting because it shows how unintelligent some people can be.

  2. 2
    Kyle J says:

    What I find interesting is how Calhoun tried to essentially sabotage Adams to make Jackson president. And what’s more interesting is how Jackson is willing to send military personnel to his home state to prevent South Carolina from nullifying the tariffs. The possibility of having to hang his former vice president is somewhat humorous though, and it is a good thing that Clay was able to divert the whole crisis or else many South Carolinians would have been slaughtered by the massive military force that Jackson sent to enforce the laws passed by Congress. The Nullification Crisis seemed to be a foreshadowing of the Civil War; such that the Southern states would try to resist the laws passed by the Union, only to be met with troops and, eventually, defeat.

  3. 3
    Aleisha C says:

    South Carolinians had been pulled through the ringer with the Tariff of 1828, so they hoped that a homegrown South Carolinian democrat like Andrew Jackson would be good for office. However they were let down because Jackson aimed for a more federalist government without even glancing at the tariff. Sadly, things only got worse from there. Calhoun, being the reason the tariff was in place, wrote an anonymous letter to fix what he had was ashamed of. He even demoted himself as Vice President to become the Senate of South Carolina. He helped them defy federal rule by creating a state ordinance that nullified all tariffs for South Carolina. Calhoun suggesting the tariff in the first place backfired, but it is good to know that did clean up the mess he had made.

  4. 4
    Scotty Nice says:

    It's interesting how Jackson was elected into presidency partially due to the public idea that he would repeal the widely hated Tariff of 1828. And the only reason he won was because Calhoun, who partially crafted the Tariff of 1828, basically destroyed Adams' chances of becoming president with the act. Calhoun later supported a state's branch view, and wanted the Tariff either removed or lowered. But Jackson took a nationalist stance on the issue, and the government remained stronger than the state. Later, because of Calhoun's large hatred for the tariffs, he resigned his place of vice presidency to take serve in the South Carolina senate. There he attempt to fight the tariffs, but remained unsuccessful. It requires more than one state to make a nation's change.

  5. 5
    Troy P says:

    Calhoun dug himself into his own hole, while others like Jackson decided to fend for himself and not follow him into it. Calhoun started digging his hole when he tried to mess with the election and get Adams to lose simply for a democratic president to get into office to help South Carolina out. I think that was the worst decision for Calhoun to make for himself. Jackson made a smart decision though by helping out the rest of the country from going away from Calhoun’s beliefs and put the whole country in front of him. Jackson saved more of the country from disobeying his home state and supporting the country in my opinion.

  6. 6
    The Forester says:

    Calhoun's Jefferson Day toast is most instructive. It's pretty obvious that, while he wanted his state to share the benefits of Union, he was also unwilling to shoulder any of the burden.

    There's a lot of that going on today. Conservative-owned corporations want lots of government spending on no-bid, cost-plus military contracts but hate the very idea of paying the taxes needed to finance that level of spending.



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