The nullification movement in South Carolina during the latter part of the third and early part of the fourth decades in the nineteenth century had nothing to do, except in the most distant way, with slavery. Its immediate cause was the high tariff; remotely it sprang from the same feelings which produced the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions of 1798.2
Certain of the slave States, including those which raised hemp, indigo, and sugar, were hightariff States; indeed, it was not till toward the close of the Presidency of Monroe that there had been much sectional feeling over the policy of protection. Originally, while we were a purely agricultural and mercantile people, free trade was the only economic policy which occurred to us as possible to be followed, the first tariff bill being passed in 1816. South Carolina then was inclined to favor the system, Calhoun himself supporting the bill, and, his subsequent denials to the contrary notwithstanding, distinctly advocating the policy of protection to native industries; while Massachusetts then and afterward stoutly opposed its introduction as hostile to her interests. However, the bill was passed, and Massachusetts had to submit to its operation.
After 1816 new tariff laws were enacted about every four years, and soon the coast slave States, except Louisiana, realized that their working was hurtful to the interests of the planters. New England also changed her attitude; and when the protective tariff bill of 18283 came up, its opponents and supporters were sharply divided by sectional lines. But these lines were not such as would have divided the States on the question of slavery. The northeast and northwest alike favored the measure, as also did all the Southern States west of the Alleghanies, and Louisiana. It was therefore passed by an overwhelming vote, against the solid opposition of the belt of Southern coast States stretching from Virginia to Mississippi, and including these two.
The States that felt themselves harmed by the tariff did something more than record their disapproval by the votes of their representatives in Congress. They nearly all, through their legislatures, entered emphatic protest against its adoption, as being most harmful to them and dangerous to the Union; and some accompanied their protests with threats as to what would be done if the obnoxious laws should be enforced.
They certainly had grounds for discontent. In 1828 the tariff, whether it benefited the country as a whole or not, unquestionably harmed the South; and in a federal Union it is most unwise to pass laws which shall benefit one part of the community to the hurt of another part, when the latter receives no compensation. The truculent and unyielding attitude of the extreme protectionists was irritating in the extreme; for cooler men than the South Carolinians might well have been exasperated at such an utterance as that of Henry Clay, when he stated that for the sake of the "American system"by which title he was fond of styling a doctrine already ancient in medieval timeshe would "defy the South, the President and the devil."
On the other hand, both the good and the evil effects of the tariff were greatly exaggerated. Some harm to the planter States was doubtless caused by it; but their falling back, as compared with the North, in the race for prosperity, was doubtless caused much more by the presence of slavery, as Dallas, of Pennsylvania, pointed out in the course of some very temperate and moderate remarks in the Senate. Clay's assertions as to what the tariff had done for the West were equally ill-founded, as Benton showed in a good speech, wherein he described picturesquely enough the industries and general condition of his portion of the country, and asserted with truth that its revived prosperity was due to its own resources, entirely independent of federal aid or legislation. He said: "I do not think we are indebted to the high tariff for our fertile lands and our navigable rivers; and I am certain we are indebted to these blessings for the prosperity we enjoy.". . .
It must be admitted that the tariff did some harm to the South, and that it was natural for the latter to feel resentment at the way in which it worked. But it must also be remembered that no law can be passed which does not distribute its benefits more or less unequally, and which does not, in all probability, work harm in some cases. More-over the South was estopped from complaining of one section being harmed by a law that benefited, or was supposed to benefit, the country at large, by her position in regard to the famous embargo and non-intervention acts. These inflicted infinitely more damage and loss in New England than any tariff law could inflict on South Carolina, and, moreover, were put into execution on account of a quarrel with England forced on by the West and South contrary to the desire of the East. . . .
Complain she did, however; and soon added threats to complaints, and was evidently ready to add acts to threats. Georgia, at first, took the lead in denunciation; but South Carolina soon surpassed her, and finally went to the length of advocating and preparing for separation from the Union; a step that produced a revulsion of feeling even among her fellow anti-tariff States. The South Carolinian statesmen now proclaimed the doctrine of nullificationthat is, proclaimed that if any State deemed a Federal law improper, it could proceed to declare that law null and void so far as its own territory was concernedand, as a corollary, that it had the right forcibly to prevent execution of this void law within its borders.
This was proclaimed, not as an exercise of the right of revolution, which, in the last resort, belongs, of course, to every community and class, but as a constitutional privilege. Jefferson was quoted as the father of the idea, and the Kentucky resolutions of 1798-99, which he drew, were cited as the precedent for the South Carolinian action.
In both these last assertions the Nullifiers were correct. Jefferson was the father of nullification, and therefore of secession. He used the word "nullify" in the original draft which he supplied to the Kentucky Legislature, and tho that body struck it out of the resolutions which they passed in 1789, they inserted it in those of the following year. This was done mainly as an unscrupulous party move on Jefferson's part, and when his side came into power he became a firm upholder of the Union; and, being constitutionally unable to put a proper value on truthfulness, he even denied that his resolutions could be construed to favor nullificationtho they could by no possibility be construed to mean anything else.
At this time it is not necessary to discuss nullification as a constitutional dogma; it is an absurdity too great to demand serious refutation. The United States has the same right to protect itself from death by nullification, secession, or rebellion that a man has to protect himself from death by assassination. Calhoun's hair-splitting and metaphysical disquisitions on the constitutionality of nullification have now little more practical interest than have the extraordinary arguments and discussions of the schoolmen of the Middle Ages.
But at the time they were of vital interest, for they were words which it was known South Carolina was prepared to back up by deeds. Calhoun was Vice-President, the second officer in the Federal Government, and yet also the avowed leader of the most bitter disunionists. His State supported him by an overwhelming majority, altho even within its own borders there was an able opposition, headed by the gallant and loyal family of the Draytonsthe same family that afterward furnished the captain of Farragut's flagship, the glorious old Hartford. There was a strong sentiment in the other Southern States in his favor; the public men of South Carolina made speech after speech goading him on to take even more advanced ground.
In Washington the current at first seemed to be all setting in favor of the Nullifiers; they even counted on Jackson's support, as he was a Southerner and a States'-rights man. But he was also a strong Unionist, and, moreover, at this time, felt very bitterly toward Calhoun, with whom he had just had a split, and had in consequence remodeled his Cabinet, thrusting out all Calhoun's supporters, and adopting Van Buren as his political heirthe position which it was hitherto supposed the great Carolina separatist occupied.
The first man to take up the gauntlet the Nullifiers had thrown down was Webster, in his famous reply to Hayne.4 He, of course, voiced the sentiment of the Whigs, and especially of the northeast, where the high tariff was regarded with peculiar favor, where the Union feeling was strong, and where there was a certain antagonism felt toward the South. The Jacksonian Democrats, whose strength lay in the West, had not yet spoken. They were, for the most part, neither ultra protectionists, nor absolute free-traders; Jackson's early presidential utterances had given offense to the South by not condemning all high-tariff legislation, but at the same time had declared in favor of a much more moderate degree of protection than suited the Whigs.
Only a few weeks after Webster's speech Jackson's chance came, and he declared himself in unmistakable terms. It was on the occasion of the Jefferson birthday banquet, April 13, 1830. An effort was then being made to have Jefferson's birthday celebrated annually; and the Nullifiers, rightly claiming him as their first and chief apostle, attempted to turn this particular feast into a demonstration in favor of nullification. Most of the speakers present were actively or passively in favor of the movement, and the toasts proposed strongly savored of the new doctrine. But Jackson, Benton, and a number of other Union men were in attendance also, and when it came to Jackson's turn he electrified the audience by proposing: "Our Federal Union; it must be preserved."
Calhoun at once answered with: "The Union; next to our liberty the most dear; may we all remember that it can only be preserved by respecting the rights of the States and distributing equally the benefit and burden of the Union." The issue between the President and the Vice-President was now complete, and the Jacksonian Democracy was squarely committed against nullification. Jackson had risen to the occasion as only a strong and a great man could rise, and his few, telling words, finely contrasting at every point with Calhoun's utterances, rang throughout the whole country, and will last as long as our government. One result, at least, the Nullifiers accomplishedthey put an end to the Jefferson birthday celebrations. . . .
The prime cause of irritation, the tariff, still remained; and in 1832, Clay, having entered the Senate after a long retirement from politics, put the finishing stroke to their anger by procuring the passage of a new tariff bill, which left the planter States almost as badly off as did the law of 1828. Jackson signed this, altho not believing that it went far enough in the reduction of duties.
In the presidential election of 1832, Jackson defeated Clay by an enormous majority; Van Buren was elected Vice-President, there being thus a Northern man on the ticket. South Carolina declined to take part in the election, throwing away her vote. Again, it must be kept in mind that the slave question did not shape, or, indeed enter into this contest at all, directly, altho beginning to be present in the background as a source of irritation. In 1832 there was tenfold more feeling in the North against Masonry, and secret societies generally, than there was against slavery.
A fortnight after the presidential election South Carolina passed her ordinance of nullification, directed against the tariff laws generally, and against those of 1828 and 1832 in particular. The ordinance was to take effect on February 1st; and if meantime the Federal Government should make any attempt to enforce the laws, the fact of such attempt was to end the continuance of South Carolina in the Union.
Jackson promptly issued a proclamation against nullification, composed jointly by himself and the great Louisiana jurist and statesman, Livingston. It is one of the ablest, as well as one of the most important, of all American state papers. It is hard to see how any American can read it now without feeling his veins thrill. Some claim it as being mainly the work of Jackson, others as that of Livingston; it is great honor for either to have had a hand in its production.
In his annual message the President merely referred, in passing, to the Nullifiers, expressing his opinion that the action in reducing the duties, which the extinction of the public debt would permit and require, would put an end to the proceedings. As matters grew more threatening, however, South Carolina making every preparation for war and apparently not being conciliated in the least by the evident desire in Congress to meet her more than half way on the tariff question, Jackson sent a special message to both Houses. He had already sent General Scott5 to Charleston, and had begun the concentration of certain military and naval forces in or near the State boundaries. . . .
Calhoun introduced a series of nullification resolutions into the Senate, and defended them strongly in the prolonged constitutional debate that followed. South Carolina meanwhile put off the date at which her decrees were to take effect, so that she might see what Congress would do. Beyond question, Jackson's firmness, and the way in which he was backed up by Benton, Webster, and their followers, was having some effect. He had openly avowed his intention, if matters went too far, of hanging Calhoun "higher than Haman." He unquestionably meant to imprison him, as well as the other South Carolina leaders, the instant that State came into actual collision with the Union; and to the end of his life regretted, and with reason, that he had not done so without waiting for an overt act of resistance. Some historians have treated this as if it were an idle threat; but such it certainly was not. Jackson undoubtedly fully meant what he said, and would have acted promptly had the provocation occurred, and, moreover, he would have been sustained by the country. . . .
All this time an obstinate struggle was going on over the tariff bill. Calhoun and his sympathizers were beginning to see that there was real danger ahead, alike to themselves, their constituents, and their principles, if they followed unswervingly the course they had laid down; and the weak-kneed brethren on the other side, headed by Clay, were becoming even more uneasy. Calhoun wished to avert collision with the Federal Government; Clay was quite as anxious to avoid an outbreak in the South and to save what he could of the protective system, which was evidently doomed. . . . Accordingly, Clay and Calhoun met and agreed on a curious bill, in reality recognizing the protective system, but making a great altho gradual reduction of duties; and Clay introduced this as a "compromise measure." It was substituted in the House for the administration tariff bill, was passed and sent to the Senate. It gave South Carolina much, but not all, that she demanded. Her Representatives announced themselves satisfied, and supported it, together with all their Southern sympathizers. Webster and Benton fought it stoutly to the last, but it was passed by a great majority. . . .
Without doubt, the honors of the nullification dispute were borne off by Benton and Webster. The latter's reply to Hayne is, perhaps, the greatest single speech of the nineteenth century, and he deserves the highest credit for the stubbornness with which he stood by his colors to the last. There never was any question of Webster's courage; on the occasion when he changed front he was actuated by self-interest and ambition, not by timidity. Usually he appears as an advocate rather than an earnest believer in the cause he represents; but when it came to be a question of the Union, he felt what he said with the whole strength of his nature.
An even greater meed of praise attaches to Benton for the unswerving fidelity which he showed to the Union in this crisis. Webster was a high-tariff man, and was backed up by all the sectional antipathies of the northeast in his opposition to the Nullifiers; Benton, on the contrary, was a believer in a low tariff, or in one for revenue merely, and his sectional antipathies were the other way. Yet, even when deserted by his chief, and when he was opposed to every senator from south of the Potomac and the Ohio, he did not flinch for a moment from his attitude of aggressive loyalty to the national Union. He had a singularly strong and upright character; this country has never had a statesman more fearlessly true to his convictions, when great questions were at stake, no matter what might be the cost to himself, or the pressure from outsideeven when, as happened later, his own State was against him.
1 From Roosevelt's "Life of Thomas H. Benton." By permission of, and by arrangement with, the authorized publishers, Houghton, Mifflin Company. Copyright 1886.
2 These resolutions, prepared by Thomas Jefferson, declared void what were known an the "Alien and Sedition Laws," and virtually looked toward accession, as did the Nullification movement in South Carolina in the early thirties.
3 "The Tariff of Abominations," so called.
4 Robert Young Hayne, born in South Carolina in 1791, died in 1840. He was Senator from South Carolina from 1823 to 1832, a leader in the Nullification movement, and Governor from 1832 to 1834.
5 General Winfield Scott.