Skip to Main Content

The Nullification Crisis

Written by: Julie Silverbrook, iCivics

By the end of this section, you will:

  • Explain the causes and effects of continuing policy debates about the role of the federal government from 1800 to 1848

Suggested Sequencing

This Narrative explores the idea of sectionalism, which is also discussed in the Is the Concurrent Majority Theory Faithful to the Ideals of the Constitution? Point-Counterpoint.

The Nullification Crisis of 1832-1833 began with the passage of the Tariff of 1828 (better known as the Tariff of Abominations) which sought to protect industrial products from competition with foreign imports. Tariffs are taxes levied on imports and are designed to artificially increase the prices of foreign goods to give a competitive advantage to domestic industries that make the same goods. The Tariff of 1828 was passed in response to the lobbying of northern manufacturers, who argued that they needed protection from British competition to expand infant U.S. industries. These manufacturers and their political allies argued that without a protective tariff, and an independent industry, the United States would always remain in a colonial relationship with Europe. To them, competition was about much more than boosting the profits of northern entrepreneurs; it was a necessary measure to secure the independence and prosperity of the nation.

Protective tariffs were not a new invention. The first one was passed in 1789 and placed a 5 percent tax on most imported goods. Congress’s power to pass tariffs is based on Article I, Section 8, Clauses 1 and 3 of the U.S. Constitution, which provide the following: “The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts, and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States,” and “The Congress shall have Power . . . To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations.”

Although protective tariffs were not new, the high tariff rates were. The rate under the Tariff of 1828 was nearly 49 percent. This was a boon for northern manufacturers but a burden for consumers as well as southern plantation owners, who were largely uninvolved with the domestic manufacturing industry. Southern planters were dependent on European trade and concerned about the negative impact of a high tariff on their ability to buy and sell goods. This concern was compounded by the drop in cotton prices throughout the 1820s as a result of the financial panic of 1819. Still reeling from the agricultural depression, Southerners feared the tariff would make the situation worse by raising the cost of manufactured goods purchased by farmers and planters and provoking retaliatory European tariffs that would lower foreign demand for their agricultural exports to other nations.

Despite fierce political opposition to the tariff bill, President John Quincy Adams signed it into law. In doing so, he paved the way for Andrew Jackson to win the 1828 presidential election. Vice President John C. Calhoun of South Carolina published the South Carolina Exposition and Protest, responding to the 1828 tariff and setting forth arguments in favor of state nullification of federal laws. Calhoun asserted states had the right to decide on the constitutionality of protective tariffs and to reject federal laws within their borders. He viewed the United States as a partnership of sovereign states, in which the federal government acted as an agent to achieve ends narrowly defined in the Constitution. For Calhoun, therefore, sovereignty originated in the states, and because of this, the states retained the right to act in their own best interests, even if that meant superseding federal law.

Panel (a) is a portrait of John Calhoun. Panel (b) is an image of the first page of the South Carolina Exposition and Protest.

(a) John Calhoun penned (b) the South Carolina Exposition and Protest, protesting the Tariff of 1828 and stating Calhoun’s doctrine of nullification, influenced by the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions.

Calhoun’s vision of the United States was more closely aligned with the concept of state sovereignty set out in the Articles of Confederation than with the U.S. Constitution, but his argument for nullification was not entirely unprecedented. In response to the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson had drafted the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, which declared these laws unconstitutional and called on other states to do the same. At that time, the case of Marbury v. Madison (1803), in which the Supreme Court claimed the power of judicial review to strike down unconstitutional laws, was still in the future. Jefferson and Madison accepted the premise that the federal Constitution was a compact among the states and that states, as parties to that compact, have a right and duty to interpret and enforce its terms. So when an act is unconstitutional, as Madison, Jefferson, and their allies believed the Alien and Sedition Acts were, the states could use their power to protect citizens from the federal government. But while Jefferson and Madison believed states should act together to protect their residents from unconstitutional laws, Calhoun believed individual states could act alone.

Calhoun’s ideas about nullification became better known when his fellow South Carolinian, Senator Robert Hayne, defended Calhoun’s ideology in a series of celebrated debates with Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster. On one side were Hayne and Calhoun. On the other was Webster, who pointed to the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause in Article VI of the Constitution: “This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof . . . shall be the Supreme Law of the Land.” Webster believed the federal courts, not the states, were the appropriate venue for deciding disputes over the constitutional validity of legislation. For him, the country would be returned to the problematic system of government it experienced under the Articles of Confederation if the doctrine of state nullification were accepted.

Portrait of Daniel Webster.

Massachusetts statesman Daniel Webster, shown in an undated photograph, cemented his position as the chief spokesman for the national Union through the Webster-Hayne debates.

Andrew Jackson, a slaveowner with southern loyalties and a proponent of states’ rights, inherited the struggle over the Tariff of 1828 when he was elected president. He had strong feelings about state nullification, which he expressed in an official proclamation against nullification: “Disunion by armed force is treason.” The president had a constitutional duty to execute federal law and was not going to allow the states to impede it.

In response to the looming political battle and in an effort to appease Southerners, Congress passed the Tariff of 1832, lowering the 1828 rates but maintaining a rate that was still highly protectionist. The newly elected South Carolina legislature responded by calling for a state nullification convention. On November 24, 1832, the convention met and passed the Ordinance of Nullification, which stated the protective tariffs were “unauthorized by the Constitution of the United States . . . and are null and void.” The convention ordered all state officials to declare that they would “obey, execute, and enforce” the Nullification Ordinance or face removal from office. South Carolina courts were to ignore Supreme Court decisions on the constitutionality of tariffs and the following warning was delivered to President Jackson:

We, the People of South Carolina . . . are determined to maintain this, our Ordinance and Declaration, at every hazard, do further Declare, that we will not submit to the application of Force, on the part of the Federal Government, to reduce this State to obedience; but that we will consider the passage, by Congress, of any act . . . to coerce the State . . . as inconsistent with the longer continuance of South Carolina in the Union.

South Carolina, therefore, was threatening not only to openly defy the federal government but also to put up armed resistance and possibly secede. President Jackson responded with his own proclamation regarding nullification, in which he stated:

The Constitution of the United States . . . forms a government, not a league. . . . The power to annul a law of the United States, assumed by one State, [is] incompatible with the existence of the Union, contradicted expressly by the letter of the Constitution, unauthorized by its spirit, inconsistent with every great principle on which it was founded, and destructive of the great object for which it was formed.

On December 17, 1832, one week after issuing his proclamation, Jackson told Secretary of War Lewis Cass, “We must be prepared to act with promptness and crush the monster in its cradle before it matures to manhood. We must be prepared for the crisis.” At the same time, the new South Carolina governor, Robert Hayne, whose former Senate seat was now occupied by John C. Calhoun and who had resigned as Jackson’s vice president, was mobilizing men and arms to defend the state’s sovereignty.

Portrait of Robert Hayne.

With John C. Calhoun, Robert Hayne (shown in this undated image) was one of the leading proponents of a doctrine of states’ rights that was later used by the South to justify secession.

South Carolina’s ordinance was to take effect on February 1, 1833. With that deadline on the horizon, Jackson urged Congress to pass the Force Bill, giving him the authority to enforce the federal tariff via the military. While he was ramping up the conflict with the Force Bill proposal on the one hand, Jackson was attempting to defuse the situation on the other by advocating rapid tariff reduction. Congress also recognized the political wisdom of lowering tariff levels. Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky introduced a series of bills that sought to avert violence over the crisis. He engineered the Compromise Tariff of 1833; it stipulated that protectionism would be ended by 1842 via reduction on import taxes. The Compromise Tariff of 1833 was balanced by the passage of the Force Bill, which gave the president congressional approval for using military force to enforce federal laws. The Force Act was the sword to the Compromise Tariff’s olive branch, as Henry Clay stated. Although the compromise ultimately gave South Carolina some of what it wanted with a reduced tariff, it also reinforced that the federal government would not tolerate state nullification.

The Nullification Crisis had serious long-term repercussions and ultimately laid the ideological and political groundwork for the secession of southern states thirty years later. Sectional differences and the inability to find a long-term compromise over the issue of slavery and its expansion then erupted into open warfare and tore the Union apart.

Review Questions

1. The purpose of a protective tariff is to

  1. create a system of international trade based upon free trade, fair deals, and mutually profitable relationships with other countries
  2. protect industries in one state from those in another
  3. provide regulation of imported goods
  4. make sure domestically made products have a marketplace advantage over similar foreign products

2. What was the predominant Southern opinion of protectionist tariffs?

  1. Southerners resented tariffs because they raised the cost of imported foreign goods and invited retaliatory tariffs that lowered foreign demand for their agricultural exports.
  2. Southerners supported protectionist tariffs because they also benefited from expanding U.S. industry.
  3. Southerners benefited from trade with European colonial powers that wished to keep the United States in an economically subordinate position.
  4. Southerners believed the Constitution explicitly denied Congress the power to pass tariffs of any kind.

3. How would a proponent of state nullification describe the relationship between the states and the federal government?

  1. The federal government makes the supreme law of the land and can nullify state laws.
  2. The states are sovereign entities and can decide to nullify a federal law that is inconsistent with the Constitution to protect their citizens.
  3. The federal and state governments share power and must negotiate over the application of federal laws to the states, reaching a compromise regarding nullification.
  4. The state government has more power than the federal government when it comes to issues of trade.

4. The Tariff of Abominations was so called because it

  1. did not allow for fair trade, hurting the U.S. economy as demand for foreign goods increased
  2. appeared to favor the economic interests of the North at the expense of the South
  3. brought great harm to the U.S. economy on all levels
  4. caused the price of cotton to increase sharply

5. Which group most strongly supported passage of the Tariff of 1828?

  1. southern plantation owners
  2. American consumers of manufactured goods
  3. northern manufacturing interests
  4. western farmers

6. Which group would agree most with the arguments made in the South Carolina Exposition and Protest?

  1. western farmers
  2. northern industrialists
  3. southern plantation owners
  4. New England yeoman farmers

7. The arguments made by Senator Robert Y. Hayne of South Carolina in his debates with Senator Daniel Webster agree with all the following except

  1. the Kentucky Resolutions
  2. the resolutions of the Hartford Convention
  3. the South Carolina Exposition and Protest
  4. the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution

8. The Compromise Tariff of 1833

  1. allowed for the spread of slavery into the recently admitted state of Missouri
  2. reinforced and increased the practice of protectionism
  3. gradually reduced tariff rates, temporarily satisfying critics in South Carolina
  4. was enacted over President Jackson’s veto

Free Response Questions

  1. Explain how the Nullification Crisis was relevant to the Civil War.
  2. Analyze changes in the relationship between the North and South as a result of the Nullification Crisis 1832-1833.

AP Practice Questions

“Whereas the Congress of the United States by various acts, purporting to be acts laying duties and imposts on foreign imports, but in reality intended for the protection of domestic manufactures and the giving of bounties to classes and individuals engaged in particular employments, at the expense and to the injury and oppression of other classes and individuals, and by wholly exempting from taxation certain foreign commodities, such as are not produced or manufactured in the United States, to afford a pretext for imposing higher and excessive duties on articles similar to those intended to be protected, bath exceeded its just powers under the constitution, which confers on it no authority to afford such protection, and bath violated the true meaning and intent of the constitution, . . . the constitution of the United States authorizes it to effect and accomplish, hath raised and collected unnecessary revenue for objects unauthorized by the constitution.

We, therefore, the people of the State of South Carolina, in convention assembled, do declare and ordain and it is hereby declared and ordained, that the several acts and parts of acts of the Congress of the United States, purporting to be laws for the imposing of duties and imposts on the importation of foreign commodities, and now having actual operation and effect within the United States, . . . or to be made or entered into, with purpose to secure the duties imposed by said acts, and all judicial proceedings which shall be hereafter had in affirmance thereof, are and shall be held utterly null and void.”

South Carolina Ordinance of Nullification, November 24, 1832

Refer to the excerpts provided.

1. In the excerpt, the quote “but in reality for the protection of domestic manufactures and the giving of bounties to classes and individuals engaged in particular employments” refers to South Carolina’s belief that

  1. the Tariff of Abominations was really intended to help farmers
  2. protectionism was the best policy
  3. the tariff was a subsidy to support northern factories
  4. the South was being unfairly neglected in the spending of federal funds

2. The main principle of the excerpt is similar to a major premise found in

  1. the Supremacy Clause in the U.S. Constitution
  2. the Tariff of 1816
  3. the Embargo Act
  4. the Kentucky Resolution

3. The main sentiment of the excerpt re-emerged during pre-1860 debates over what issue?

  1. Westward expansion
  2. War with Mexico
  3. Slavery
  4. Indian removal

Primary Sources

Jackson, Andrew. “Andrew Jackson to Lewis Cass, December 17, 1832.” Library of Congress.

Jackson, Andrew. “President Jackson’s Proclamation Regarding Nullification, December 10, 1832.”

“South Carolina Ordinance of Nullification, November 24, 1832.”

Special Committee of the South Carolina House of Representatives. Exposition and Protest.

Twentieth Congress. “A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875” [re: Tariff Act of 1828].

Twenty-Second Congress. “A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875” [re: Compromise Tariff of 1833].

Twenty-Second Congress. “A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875” [re: Tariff Act of 1832].

Suggested Resources

Brands, H.W. Heirs of the Founders: The Epic Rivalry of Henry Clay, John Calhoun, and Daniel Webster, the Second Generation of American Giants. New York: Doubleday, 2018.

Freehling, William. The Nullification Era: A Documentary Record. New York: Harper and Row: 1967.

Peterson, Merrill D. Olive Branch and Sword: The Compromise of 1833. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1999.

Watson, Harry L. Liberty and Power: The Politics of Jacksonian America. Second Edition. New York: Hill and Wang: 2006.

Whittington, Keith. “The Political Constitution of Federalism in Antebellum America: The Nullification Debate as an Illustration of Informal Mechanisms of Constitutional Change.” Publius : The Journal of Federalism26 no. 2 (1996):1-24.

Related Content