An Anniston Star reporter recently parroted a common misconception about nullification. He basically said it hasn’t worked.
But it has. And it Does.
This fallacy persists because most people possess a very limited understanding of nullification the learned in government schools – if they have any grasp of the history at all.
The Star reporter knows more nullification history than most, but it’s filtered through the mainstream template. He wrote, “Southern states tried to block federal tariffs in the Nullification Crisis of the 1830s, but states had little luck with nullification then, or since.”
The first part is true. South Carolina did pass a nullification ordinance relating to federal tariffs. But the second part of his statement does not match up to reality. In fact, South Carolina’s nullification efforts did bear fruit.
The Nullification Crisis
In 1828, Congress passed a tariff designed to protect the northern industrial economy as it struggled to compete against low-cost imported goods. Southerners generally opposed the tariff because it raised the price of goods imported into southern states, things they could not manufacture themselves. It also indirectly hurt the agrarian economy in the South by reducing cash available for the English to purchase southern cotton. Opposition proved particularly fierce in South Carolina. Many southerners dubbed it the “Tariff of Abominations.”
Opponents claimed the tariff of 1828 was unconstitutional because it benefited only certain sections of the country to the detriment of others. In other words, they believed it represented an actual violation of the General Welfare Clause. North Carolina issued a solemn protest to that effect in 1828, declaring, “Manufactures in the United States, are not an object of general interest, but of local interest…”
The tariff’s effect on the southern economy proved disastrous. England predictably reduced its cotton imports, and southern states were forced to purchase manufactured goods at higher prices from northern U.S. manufacturers.
In 1832, Congress passed a new tariff bill, but it did little to relieve the burden on southern states. In response, South Carolina elected delegates to a special convention. On Nov. 24, the convention ratified the South Carolina Ordinance of Nullification. The proclamation declared the tariffs of 1828 and 1832, “are unauthorized by the constitution of the United States, and violate the true meaning and intent thereof and are null, void, and no law, nor binding upon this State.”
The delegates set Feb. 1, 1833, as the date noncompliance with the tariff would go into effect.
Pres. Andrew Jackson issued a strong response, forcefully challenging the legality of nullification and threatening to use force should South Carolina go forward and refuse to collect the tariff. In his address to Congress on Dec. 3, Jackson said:
“It is my painful duty to state that in one quarter of the United States opposition to the revenue laws has arisen to a height which threatens to thwart their execution, if not to endanger the integrity of the Union. What ever obstructions may be thrown in the way of the judicial authorities of the General Government, it is hoped they will be able peaceably to overcome them by the prudence of their own officers and the patriotism of the people. But should this reasonable reliance on the moderation and good sense of all portions of our fellow citizens be disappointed, it is believed that the laws themselves are fully adequate to the suppression of such attempts as may be immediately made. Should the exigency arise rendering the execution of the existing laws impracticable from any cause what ever, prompt notice of it will be given to Congress, with a suggestion of such views and measures as may be deemed necessary to meet it.”
Eight days later, Jackson issued the Proclamation to the People of South Carolina, condemning nullification.
South Carolina refused to back down. The legislature responded with a resolution of its own, declaring, “The state will repel force by force, and relying on the blessings of God, will maintain its liberty at all hazards.”
Ultimately, Kentucky Senator Henry Clay diffused the situation. He brokered the compromise Tariff of 1833, lowering the tariff over the next 10 years. Congress passed the legislation, along with the “force bill,” authorizing the president to use force to uphold federal law. South Carolina accepted the compromise tariff, but voted to nullify the force bill in convention.
Conventional wisdom holds South Carolina’s decision to nullify the tariffs was a disaster and a failure. But was it? While South Carolina didn’t get the total tariff relief it might have wanted, its action led to a favorable shift in policy. It undeniably counts as a political win.That wouldn’t have happened without the nullification efforts.
Beyond the Nullification Crisis
Mainstream nullification history ends after the so-called nullification crisis and doesn’t pick up again until the 1950s and 60s when some southern states attempted to nullify federal civil rights legislation. This paints nullification in a bad light. But it totally ignores the most historically successful application of a nullification strategy.
Northern states effectively nullified the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 through a combination of state and individual action. South Carolina even objected to this northern nullification in its Declaration of Causes for secession.
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was enacted to aid southern slavers in their efforts to reclaim their “property.” It allowed a slave owner, or his representative, to haul a black person back South into slavery merely on his world. It denied an accused runaway any semblance of due process.
In no trial or hearing under this act shall the testimony of such alleged fugitive be admitted in evidence; and the certificates in this and the first [fourth] section mentioned, shall be conclusive of the right of the person or persons in whose favor granted, to remove such fugitive to the State or Territory from which he escaped, and shall prevent all molestation of such person or persons by any process issued by any court, judge, magistrate, or other person whomsoever.
It also compelled citizens to assist in fugitive slave rendition if ordered to do so and made assisting suspected runaways a federal crime with stiff penalties.
At the state level, northerners rebelled. They asserted state sovereignty and passed aggressive personal liberty laws to thwart execution of the act. For instance, the Michigan legislature approved a law in 1855 that guaranteed trial by jury and prohibited the use of state or local jails for holding accused fugitive slaves. The Massachusetts personal liberty law prohibited any state officer from serving on a fugitive slave commission, making it an impeachable offense. It also provided for disbarment of attorneys assisting in fugitive slave rendition. Later personal liberty laws ratcheted things up another notch. Vermont passed an act in 1858 that essentially declared any black person within its borders free and subjected slave catchers to kidnapping charges. In support of their stand, apologists appealed to the notion of “states’ rights,” sometimes directly quoting arguments advanced by John C. Calhoun during the nullification crisis.
Coupled with individual action, most famously the establishment of the Underground Railroad, these state efforts effectively nullified the Fugitive Slave Act, particularly in New England. Even in more southern areas such as Ohio and Indiana, state and individual action thwarted fugitive slave rendition.
People like our Anniston Star reporter never mention this highly successful nullification effort. In their defense, they probably don’t even know about it.
Fast Forward to Today
You don’t have to dig into a history book to prove nullification works. I can prove it does with one word.
In 1996, California voters approved Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use Act, authorizing the possession, cultivation, and use of cannabis (marijuana) for limited medical use.
The federal government claims the power to strictly enforce a total prohibition of marijuana. It makes no exception for medical purposes. Despite federal law, states have advanced the issue each year. This has happened in spite of a 2005 Supreme Court opinion supporting federal prohibition, and a relentless year-to-year increase in spending and enforcement efforts by the federal government.
Today, despite ongoing attempts to enforce federal prohibition, 21 states and Washington D.C. have legalized marijuana for medical use, and 14 states and D.C. have decriminalized marijuana possession. Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon and Washington State have all legalized marijuana for recreational use. Each year, new state laws and regulations help expand the market, and each expansion further nullifies the unconstitutional federal ban in effect.
No matter what the mainstream tells you, nullification works. History proves this. The present proves this. And we will continue to prove it in the future.
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