Today in history, on Jan. 13, 1833, Andrew Jackson wrote a scathing letter to Martin Van Buren that explained his indignation toward South Carolina for nullifying the recent federal Tariff of 1832.

The 1832 act followed its 1828 predecessor, which many called the “Tariff of Abominations” for its radical protectionist implications. The 1832 tariff altered the duties on some goods, but remained a highly protectionist measure. By drastically altering the buying patterns of the southern states to the benefit of northern manufacturers, the act forced southerners to buy northern goods that were often inferior and much more expensive.

In response to the tariff, Jackson’s vice president John C. Calhoun resigned from the office, won a seat to the United States Senate, and orchestrated a campaign of opposition against the tariff. In his anonymous tract, “South Carolina Exposition and Protest,” Calhoun defended his case on the grounds that the power to establish a revenue tariff did not confer the ability to impose a tariff designed to eliminate foreign trade and give advantage to northern industry.

Meanwhile, many in South Carolina openly called for immediate secession, believing Calhoun’s approach to be too moderate. Ultimately, South Carolina’s legislature nullified both the Tariff of 1828 and Tariff of 1832 on the grounds Calhoun espoused. Invoking Thomas Jefferson and James Madison’s language in Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions of 1798, the state declared the tariff “null, void, and no law.”

Jackson spoke of using force against the state, threatening to march 50,000 men from Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee. “The crisis must be now met with firmness,” Jackson wrote. He later sent naval warships into Charleston harbor and threatened to hang Calhoun and his acolytes, exacerbating the tensions that defined the episode. Jackson condemned all those involved in nullifying the tariff was traitors against the United States. Meanwhile, South Carolina mobilized by drilling units to resist a potential invasion by the federal government.

Despite Jackson’s tenacity to view nullification as a treasonous offense, the Constitution maintains a very different standard for such a distinction – only those “levying War against them [the states], or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort” had engaged in treason. Ironically, Jackson himself had more closely met this requisite by seeking to obtain the authority to invade South Carolina via the Force Bill, which eventually passed Congress. Only one senator – future president John Tyler – voted against the measure. Moreover, rather than permit it to carry out invasions against states, the Constitution obligates the federal government to protect each state from invasions thereof.

Even an aged and retired Madison was drawn into the dispute. He penned a tract that defended the constitutionality of the tariff and opposed South Carolina’s position that it could compel the other states to vote on the legitimacy of one state’s nullification pronouncement. In the same writing, however, Madison remained adamant that nullification of unconstitutional matters was “a remedy against insupportable oppression.”

In the end, the rate of the tariff was renegotiated to a lower rate. South Carolina’s legislature rescinded its nullification of the tariff, proceeded to nullify the Force Bill, and concluded its session. The resentment left by this ordeal stirred for decades, where protectionist tariffs remained a contentious issue. Up to and including the 1861 Morrill Tariff, the matter pitted two incompatible economic visions against each other.

Dave Benner
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