It seems like as Americans we had been putting off the Civil War since the three fifths compromise. We were able to kick the issue of slavery down the line, but it reared it’s ugly head several times before the Civil War began. One of those flare ups was the Nullification Crisis.
Andrew Jackson was president, and he did not like being crossed. His vice president was John C. Calhoun of South Carolina and he hated him as hard as he could. They had gotten off on the wrong foot when Calhoun’s wife, Flordie, refused to entertain Peggy Eaton, the wife of John Eaton. Eaton was a senator from Tennessee and a good friend of Jackson. Eaton had been made Secretary of War. John and Peggy married under murky circumstances as Peggy’s first husband died quite conveniently after he allegedly discovered the two were having an affair. It is not clear whether this was from natural causes of suicide. As a result of Flordie’s actions, the wives of all the cabinet members shunned Peggy and Jackson was furious. He was sensitive to Peggy’s treatment because his wife, Rachel, had been shunned by men and women alike during Jackson’s campaign. Because of questions about her first marriage, newspapers called Rachel Jackson an adulteress, and Jackson had fought and won many duels for her honor. Jackson believed these attacks had hastened Rachel’s death several weeks after his election to the presidency. The tempest was called the Petticoat Affair and was only resolved after the cabinet was reorganized and Eaton was given a post as the first governor of Florida Territory. What it did do was make John C. Calhoun a focal point for resistance to the Jackson administration.
There was much to resist. By this time, the north was becoming increasingly industrialized and the south, including Calhoun’s South Carolina, was more agricultural. Slave labor was cheap, and planters were making money hand over fist sending their crops across the sea to Britain to be turned into cloth. In turn, the southern states bought finished goods back from Britain. In 1828, Congress passed a high protective tariff, which raised the cost of British textiles and shrunk demand. This affected the demand for raw cotton from the southern states, while protecting the American textile makers in the north. The price of raw cotton and other crops fell while the price of finished goods rose. Angrily, the southerners labeled the tariff the “Tariff of Abominations”. Another tariff was passed in 1832, which was less stringent, but it did nothing to appease the South. Some people were angry enough to look into dissolution of the union, however, this was considered to be too great a step. The South looked to Calhoun for leadership.
Calhoun responded by resigning from the vice presidency and running for the Senate, where he won handily. Soon after on November 24, 182, a state convention in South Carolina adopted the Ordinance of Nullification, which declared the tariffs did not apply to them. This was based on the constitutional theory of state nullification, which is a legal theory that a state has a right to invalidate any federal which that state has deemed unconstitutional. Item: this has never been legally upheld in federal court and has been tested several times. Each time it’s struck down under the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, which states federal law is superior to state law and the federal judiciary has the final say on Constitutional interpretation under Article III. This goes to the heart of what I think is wrong with this country. We’ve never decided if we are going to be a group of individual states or one country. Another quick reminder, the Articles of Confederation tried the loose group of states thing and failed miserably.
Anyway, Calhoun was sitting in South Carolina basically thumbing his nose at Jackson by way of nullification. Jackson did not take well to anyone thumbing their nose at him, as can be attested to by the line of corpses from duels littering his past. On December 10, 1832, Jackson issued a proclamation, which said South Carolina stood on the “brink of insurrection and treason” with nullification. He issued a plea to the people of South Carolina to reject this notion or else he would be forced to back up that opinion with military action. Ships were dispatched to Charleston harbor and the federal forts there began strengthening their defenses. Congress pushed through something called the Force Bill in 1833, expanded presidential power and was designed to bring South Carolina to heel. In short, if he deemed necessary, Jackson could deploy federal troops to South Carolina to force them to comply with the tariffs. The country looked at the brink of war.
At the same time, Henry Clay set out to make a compromise between these two unbending men. He wasn’t called the Great Compromiser for nothing. The same day the Force Bill was passed, he pushed through the Tariff of 1833. This Tariff gradually decreased the level of the tariff down to 1816 levels within 10 years. This compromise was accepted by Calhoun as no other state was willing to go to the wall with him over nullification. The crisis was officially over when Jackson signed the bill. South Carolina did have to get in the last word by nullifying the Force Bill, but someone convinced Jackson to ignore it.
However, the idea that the laws passed by the federal government was now out there in wider circulation and somehow morphed into the idea that the entire union could be nullified. This planted the seeds of the secession and pushed us down the path to Civil War.