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The Nullification Crisis was a
period of political crisis from 1832 to 1833, during the presidency of Andrew
Jackson, and began as a confrontation between South Carolina and the federal
government. In the 1820s, the United States suffered an economic downturn, so
during John Quincy Adams’ presidency, the federal government issued a tariff
policy enacted after the War of 1812 to promote American manufacturing over
European competition. However, many people in South Carolina and the South saw
the tariff, later known as the Tariff of Abominations, as a way to shift the
wealth from the South to the North. Because the election of Andrew Jackson in
1828 did not address the people of South Carolina’s concerns, John C. Calhoun,
the Vice President under Jackson, secretly wrote the South Carolina Exposition and Protest in which he declared that the
Tariff of Abominations was unconstitutional and therefore null and void in the
sovereign state boundaries of the state of South Carolina. 1) Because
the Tariff of Abominations was especially unpopular in the South, many southern
states saw good in the intentions of Nullification and began emphasize
principles of state sovereignty, or the idea that states had their own rights
separate from the national government. 2)
However, because
most of the southern states feared Jackson’s military strength and power, South
Carolina was the only state that had officially nullified the Tariff of
Abominations and later the Force Bill, which authorized the military to use
military strength against South Carolina. This also caused South Carolina to
become isolated from other states in the South and the spread of the Whig party
throughout the South. 3) In addition, Southerners began
to be aware of their minority position in the nation and their vulnerability to
the Northern majority as long as they stayed in the union; therefore, the
Nullification Crisis also foreshadowed the American Civil War in which states’
rights and secession became the main issues.

The Nullification Crisis caused
several southern states to begin a period of emphasizing principles of state
sovereignty because they believed the Tariff of Abominations was unfair and
unconstitutional. In Tennessee, farmers and politicians recognized that the
tariff would hurt cotton sales of their state, so on October 15, 1832, David W.
Dickson of East Tennessee delivered a speech to the Tennessee General Assembly
stating that the individual rights of his state was a “natural and unalienable
right” owed to all citizens to resist tyranny and oppression (footnote Tennessee responds).
Because the Jackson administration had made unfair policies that would hurt the
economy of Tennessee, the people of Tennessee emphasized that being sovereign
from a national government was important to protect their economy and
individual liberties. Similar situations happened in the state of Georgia,
where cotton was the largest industry. Georgian politicians began to recognize
the importance of states’ rights as their largest industry, cotton, was going
to be threatened under the tariffs. As a result, the general elections of 1832
in Georgia was instrumental in demonstrating public opinion on the effects of
nullification; the election became a valuable educating force advocating for
the need of increased states’ rights and the protecting of the economy and
people began campaigning for politicians to take a stand against Jackson (footnote Georgia). In
Louisiana, Senator Holman declared, in response to Nullification and the Tariff
of Abominations, that in order to prevent “intolerable oppression”(footnote rebellion) from the
national government, individual states should have the right to decide on laws
that would affect them rather than have others choose for them. This caused a
greater movement for states’ rights among working farmers and rich plantation
owners in Louisiana whose profits would be severely diminished by a tariff in
which they did not get to vote on.

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However, most states did not want to
be directly opposed to Jackson by nullifying because they feared that Jackson
would use military strength on them. In Tennessee, James W. Wyly wrote a letter
blasting Calhoun and nullification, stating that “resisting the Union would be
a foolish maneuver” (footnote
blasts calhoun). Many people viewed nullification as far too radical
because going directly against the Union would certainly cause war. Although
the state of Tennessee was for increased state sovereignty, legislators called
nullification “destructive for the principles of government.” (footnote tennessee) They believed
that preserving the union would ultimately lead to less conflicts and would
allow for states to feel protected under the government. They feared that if
Jackson could impose unpopular laws, he could easily use force to help enact
those laws. In addition, Jackson had many supporters in the South, and many
people did not want to go against him. Even if they sympathized with
nullification, they were not ready to desert the President, who had stated,
“the Union, it must be preserved” (footnote Georgia). Because Jackson was for the common man, most
people still had hope in Jackson in that he would repeal the tariff due to the
backlash it received from the southern states, rather than go to the extreme of
nullification and following in South Carolina’s footsteps.

South Carolina was the only state to
officially nullify the tariff because people had begun to suffer from the
decline in price of short-staple cotton years before. South Carolina had grown
cotton for quite a while, so most of its land had been drained of nutrients
which caused difficulty growing new crop (footnote origins). The people of South Carolina
blamed much of the state’s economic problems on the tariffs, so most people
were in favor of nullification. However, people in the South began to question
whether Jackson could represent southerners well, so in other southern states,
rather than nullifying, people formed the southern wing of the Whig party,
known for being directly opposed to Jackson and his policies. Former nullifiers
across the South joined forces, emphasizing that they were “far more south than
Democrats,”(footnote Whigs)
and formed in order to break Jackson’s hold on southern states. Led by Henry
Clay, members of the Whig party worked to defeat Jackson and implement a
stronger federal government that would protect southern interests as well as
keep the nation together.

The Nullification Crisis was
important to southerners because it caused them to be aware of the status they
had being the minority and being vulnerable to unpopular northern policies that
they had little say in. One of the causes of the American Civil War was the
fact that people began to emphasize state sovereignty and that they did not
want to lack a voice in national government because of their lower populations
(footnote Causes).
Southern states based states’ rights off the 10th Amendment to the
Constitution, which stated, “The powers not delegated to the United States by
the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the
States respectively, or to the people.”(footnote YAWP) Southern states could then threaten
to leave the Union if they had believed that the government had implemented
laws and tariffs that were unconstitutional. When South Carolina seceded from
the Union in 1860, they claimed in their Declaration of Secession that they had
joined voluntarily and could leave voluntarily. Several other states seceded,
citing state sovereignty and the right to leave the Union if the government
could not represent them well. Regional differences socially, economically, and
politically caused the states to feel that the majority North could not
represent southern interests well, so people believed that states could
individually form governments so that unjust policies could not be imposed on

The Nullification Crisis during the
period 1832 to 1833 created a shift in the way southerners viewed themselves.
It caused them to believe that they had the right to state sovereignty and that
the government should not be allowed to pass laws in which they have no say in.
South Carolina was the only state that officially nullified the Tariff of
Abominations, but other states reacted by beginning talks of secession and
forming new political parties. Ultimately, the Nullification Crisis caused
southern states to begin to question higher authority and to seek governments
that were better suited for the interests of their citizens.


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