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Force Act (1833)

March 2, 1833

Approved by Congress on March 1, 1833 and signed by President Andrew Jackson the next day, the Force Act of 1833, known in South Carolina as the "Bloody Bill," authorized President Jackson to employ land, naval, or militia forces for the purpose of protecting customs officials and for enforcing United States tariff laws.

On May 19, 1828, United States President John Quincy Adams approved an act of Congress commonly known as the Tariff of 1828. The legislation was designed to raise revenue for the federal government by imposing duties (taxes) on manufactured products and some raw materials imported into the United States. Many Americans, especially in the South, referred to the law as the Tariff of Abominations, because its provisions protected manufacturers in the Northeast and farmers in the West, at the expense of Southerners and New Englanders. The effects of the tariff were particularly severe in the South, where the cotton-based economy, combined with limited manufacturing, dictated a high dependency on imported items.

By 1832, Congress became more receptive to Southern grievances regarding the Tariff of Abominations. Consequently, on July 14, 1832, it enacted and President Andrew Jackson approved a new tariff commonly known as the Tariff of 1832. Although the new law reduced or eliminated some of the protective measures adopted in 1828, it did not go far enough to appease some Southerners, especially in South Carolina.

Those who believed that the lower duties enacted in the Tariff of 1832 would placate firebrands in the South were soon disappointed. On November 24, 1832, the Convention of the People of South Carolina endorsed a proclamation commonly known as the South Carolina Ordinance of Nullification. The ordinance declared the tariffs of 1828 and 1832 to be "null and void" in South Carolina because they were unconstitutional. The proclamation went on to state that the tariffs would be unenforceable in the Palmetto State after February 1, 1833. Furthermore, in the event of "any act authorizing the employment of a military or naval force against the State of South Carolina . . . the people of this State will henceforth hold themselves absolved from all further obligation to maintain or preserve their political connection with the people of the other States; and will forthwith proceed to organize a separate government."

On December 10, 1832, President Andrew Jackson responded with his own proclamation stating that "I consider, then, the power to annul a law of the United States, assumed by one State, incompatible with the existence of the Union." Jackson made clear his determination "to execute the laws (and) to preserve the Union by all constitutional means," including "recourse to force; and . . . the shedding of a brother's blood" if necessary.

To ensure that this warning was not perceived as an idle threat, Jackson sent General Winfield Scott to Charleston to command federal troops garrisoned in South Carolina. Jackson also relocated the United States custom house in Charleston to Castle Pinckney in Charleston Harbor, and he dispatched seven naval vessels to safeguard that facility. Not intimidated by Jackson's threat to use force to enforce the tariff laws, the South Carolina legislature mobilized the state militia.

On January 16, 1833, as South Carolina's non-enforcement date of February 1 approached, President Jackson sent a message to Congress reinforcing his belief that "The right of the people of a single State to absolve themselves at will and without the consent of the other States from their most solemn obligations, can not be acknowledged." He then requested that Congress grant him an extension of his executive authority to ensure that federal customs officials could continue to enforce U.S. tariff laws in South Carolina without interference from state officials.

In conformance with Jackson's request, on January 21, 1833, Pennsylvania Senator William Wilkins introduced "An Act further to provide for the collection of duties on imports" that would strengthen the president's hand. After a month of debate, the Senate passed an amended version of Wilkin's bill on February 20, 1833 by a vote of thirty-two to one. Just prior to the roll-call, South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun and thirteen of his followers left the Senate floor in protest and did not vote. Virginia Senator (and future U.S. President) John Tyler was the only member to vote against the bill. The House of Representatives approved the bill on March 1 by a margin of 149 to forty-seven and President Jackson signed it into law the next day.

Commonly known as the Force Act of 1833, the legislation was also called the "Bloody Bill" in South Carolina. The main provisions of the Force Act:

  • Authorized the president to relocate custom houses to more secure locations
  • Required the payment of custom duties in cash
  • Affirmed and expanded the supremacy of federal courts in cases involving the collectionof import duties
  • Authorized the establishment of temporary jails for persons convicted of violating U.S. customs laws
  • Authorized the president to employ land, naval, or militia forces for the purpose of
  • protecting customs officials and for enforcing U.S. tariff laws.

The final section of the act underscored the impermanent nature of the bill by specifying that it "shall be in force until the end of the next session of Congress, and no longer."

With the nation teetering on the brink of civil war, United States Senators Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun hurriedly brokered a compromise measure to diffuse the situation. Their negotiations produced the Tariff of 1833, designed to gradually reduce protectionist duties until 1842, at which time all duties would be reduced to a uniform level in line with the Tariff of 1816.

The Force Act, coupled with the enactment of the compromise tariff, achieved the desired results. On March 15, 1833, the Convention of the People of South Carolina voted 153 to four to rescind the Nullification Ordinance. Although the delegates repealed the Nullification Ordinance, they did not repudiate the doctrine of nullification. Before dissolving the convention on March 18, 1833, the delegates approved an ordinance nullifying the Force Act by a vote of 132 to nineteen. With bloodshed averted and the Union preserved, President Jackson wisely ignored the convention's final act of defiance. Still, the issues of nullification and secession remained undecided, and the ominous specter of civil war lingered on the horizon.

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