On November 24, 1832, the Convention of the People of South Carolina approved the South Carolina Ordinance of Nullification, precipitating a constitutional crisis that nearly triggered a civil war in the United States.
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 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 especially 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 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. At the urging of United States Vice-President John C. Calhoun and United States Senator Robert Hayne, South Carolina Governor James Hamilton, Jr., called a special session of the state legislature in 1832. On October 25, the legislature enacted a measure authorizing a statewide convention to consider a response to the enactment of the Tariff of 1832.
The Convention of the People of South Carolina convened in Columbia on November 19, 1832. On November 24, by a vote of 136 to twenty-six, the delegates endorsed a proclamation drafted by William Harper entitled, An ordinance to nullify certain acts of the Congress of the United States, purporting to be laws laying duties and imposts on the importation of foreign commodities.
More commonly known as the South Carolina Ordinance of Nullification, the report declared that the Tariff of 1828 and the Tariff of 1832 were unconstitutional and that they were therefore considered to “be held utterly null and void” by the citizens of South Carolina. Seeking to punctuate the seriousness of their resolve, the convention members concluded the document by declaring that in response to “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.”
The convention adjourned on November 24, 1832 and distributed copies of the ordinance to President Jackson and the governor of each state in the Union. The South Carolina legislature then busied itself crafting laws necessary to carry the Nullification Ordinance into effect. On December 20, the legislature passedAn Act to carry into effect in part, an Ordinance to Nullify certain Acts of the Congress of the United States.
President Jackson responded on December 10, 1832 with a proclamation nearly nine thousand words in length, 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, contradicted expressly by the letter of the Constitution, unauthorized by its spirit, inconsistent with every principle on which It was founded, and destructive of the great object for which it was formed.” While he was somewhat conciliatory about the possibility of reducing duties, he went on to state that “The Constitution of the United States . . . forms a government, not a league,” thus any perceived right to secede “does not break a league, but destroys the unity of a nation.” In his conclusion, 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 military reinforcements to the federal fortifications in Charleston Harbor.
President Jackson’s proclamation prompted the South Carolina legislature to approve a response on December 20, 1833. The fifth of eleven resolutions specified in the response reaffirmed the state’s position “That each state of the Union has the right, whenever it may deem such a course necessary for the preservation of its liberties or vital interests, to secede peaceably from the Union, and that there is no constitutional power in the general government, much less in the executive department, of that government, to retain by force such state in the Union.” Not intimidated by Jackson’s threat to use force to enforce the tariff laws, the South Carolina legislature mobilized the state militia.
With the situation at an impasse, approximately two months later, Congress weighed in by enacting An Act further to provide for the collection of duties on imports on March 2, 1833. Commonly known as the Force Act, the legislation authorized “the president to use armed forces to protect customs officers and to prevent the unauthorized removal of untaxed vessels and cargo” in violation of the Tariffs of 1828 and 1832.
Meanwhile, United States Senators Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun brokered the enactment of a compromise tariff, approved by President Jackson on the same day that he signed the Force Act into law. The Tariff of 1833 was 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 compromise provided Southerners the tariff relief they sought, while giving domestic manufacturers nine years to adjust to reduced government protection when competing with foreign rivals.
Unable to muster support from the other Southern States, South Carolina adopted a more conciliatory stance after the enactment of the Tariff of 1833. On March 11, 1833, the Convention of the People of South Carolina re-convened in Columbia. The majority of the delegates were convinced that their recalcitrant stance and the threat of secession had forced Congress to bend to their wishes by enacting the compromise tariff. Thus, on March 15, the delegates voted 153 to four to rescind the Nullification Ordinance.
Although the convention 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.