Government & Constitution

The Nullification Crisis, Coming to a State Near You

In 1828, the federal government passed a tariff that was supposed to help the economies of Western states and territories, while simultaneously protecting the economies of both the North and the South from British domination. Yet southerners dubbed it the “Tariff of Abominations” because this tax on imports nearly crushed the South’s agrarian economy while barely making a dent in the North’s industrial one.
 
The tensions arising over this tariff cast light on the stark differences between supporters of a strong national government and supporters of states’ rights. These tensions became the impetus for South Carolina to claim that individual states have the authority to nullify, within their own borders, any federal laws that they believed violated the Constitution.
 
Known as the “Nullification Crisis,” this showdown between South Carolina and the federal government laid the groundwork for the current faceoff between Obama’s Administration and the various states that are suing to stop “Obamacare” on the grounds that it violates the Constitution.
 
In 1798, long before the “Nullification Crisis” arose, Thomas Jefferson wrote the Kentucky Resolutions, contending that states not only had the right to decide the constitutionality of federal legislation but to leave the Union if unconstitutional legislation was not rescinded. One year later, James Madison took an identical position in the Virginia Resolutions.  (Both sets of resolutions were written in the belief that President John Adams had violated the Constitution via the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts.)
 
Three decades later, southerners viewed the “Tariff of Abominations” as Jefferson and Madison had viewed Adams’ legislation. And sharing Jefferson’s view that the federal government was a compact created by the states, and therefore one the states had a right to dismantle should tyranny arise, South Carolina pushed the doctrine of nullification coupled with the threat of secession.
 
Yet the federal government not only kept the “Tariff of Abominations” on the books, but also passed a second tariff in 1832: a tariff which southerners viewed as nothing less than a slap in the face.
 
At this point, Vice President John C. Calhoun, a South Carolinian, resigned his post to push nullification through South Carolina’s state legislature. And on November 24, 1832, he succeeded, thus making the Palmetto State the first to nullify both the “Tariff of Abominations” and the tariff of 1832.
 
With nullification passed, South Carolina’s officials no longer collected the taxes that the tariffs would otherwise have imposed on their citizens.
 
President Andrew Jackson responded to this by threatening to send federal troops into South Carolina and through force compel its citizens to pay the taxes.
 
Contemporaries of Jackson and Calhoun must have seen this showdown coming two years earlier, at a Jefferson Day Dinner in April of 1830. At that dinner, Jackson gave a toast in which he made clear his convictions: “The federal union, it must be preserved.” Calhoun followed with his own toast, in which he voiced the position of South Carolinians by asserting: “The Union, next to liberty, most dear.”
 
How much clearer can it get? This example of Jackson verses Calhoun exemplifies how those who support big government actually support big government above all else while those who support states’ rights actually support liberty above all else: even liberty above union.
 
And the demarcation between supporters of a burgeoning government and supporters of states’ rights is as clear (and important) in 2010 as it was in 1828 and 1832. For within days after the passage of Obamacare, Utah, Texas, Virgnia, Alabama, Michigan, Florida, South Carolina, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Washington, North Dakota, and South Dakota, positioned themselves to file suit against it on grounds that portions of the legislation were unconstitutional: And before the legislation was even signed into law Idaho and Minnesota were taking their stand.
 
Within weeks, these first fourteen states were joined by six more, and now the National Conference of State Legislatures reports that “members of at least 39 state legislatures have proposed legislation” which, in one way or another, is aimed at stopping Obamacare in its tracks.
 
In short, the race is on to nullify this legislation before the citizens of the states fall prey to the greedy, overreaching paws of those who put government first, and liberty second.
 
May it ever be the theme of Conservatism that regardless of the stakes involved, we hold liberty, above all else, “most dear.”


Sign Up