There’s Nothing Radical about Nullification

Picture the single most barbaric, inhumane, and morally reprehensible act imaginable. It could be anything. You could choose genocide, the most depraved form of torture, or slavery, whatever really. History is replete with examples, the twentieth century in particular, but the nineteenth century had its share of them as well.

There doesn’t have to be a geographic limitation, either. But for the sake of argument, try to keep it local, as in here in the United States. Whatever you chose, On the official Maddow Blog, MSNBC’s Steve Benen believes that “[n]ullification must never be on the table” as a means to protect innocent lives and property.

Apparently he can’t think of a single reason that nullification should be used by states or local governing bodies. The logical implication is that opponents of slavery – that is advocates of freedom – in the antebellum period were wrong to have used nullification as a means to protect the lives and freedom of former slaves. No doubt, Harriet Tubman would be described by Benen as a radical, and her willful defiance of federal slave laws would be denounced, had the two been contemporaries.

Another case where nullification could arguably have been employed is in preventing or at least deterring the murderous and detestable “Trail of Tears” death march across the southern United States. Imagine if the forcible relocation of more than a hundred thousand members of various native tribes weren’t marched through Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, or Kentucky because those states refused to participate. The lives of thousands could have been saved by such resistance. Opponents of nullification however, are self-righteously indignant at such a thought.


Free at Last! Martin Luther King and Nullification

You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws.  This is certainly a legitimate concern.  Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in public schools, at first glance it may seem paradoxical for us consciously to break laws.  One may ask, “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?”  The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust.  I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws.  One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws.  Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.  I would agree with Saint Augustine  that “an unjust law is no law at all.”
–Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  “Letter from Birmingham Jail” April 16, 1963

In some ways, it is ironic to use Dr. King as an example to promote nullification and interposition.  Dr. King, in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” makes one reference to nullification and interposition, and it is not a flattering one.  Many state and local governments cited nullification when they refused to comply with federal legislation and court decisions against segregation.  It is the one unfortunate blight one can find in the nullification movement throughout American history.