Nullification is a constitutional theory that gives an individual state the right to declare null and void any law passed by the United States Congress which the state deems unacceptable and unconstitutional.
The concept is most well-known in the context of the sectionalist crisis that plagued the Union in the 40 years preceding the Civil War.
The origins of nullification are found in the Federalist-Republican debate of the late 1700s. James Madison and Thomas Jefferson in the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions (1798) declared that the states had the right to nullify laws by which the federal government overstepped its limits of jurisprudence. When the Republicans gained the presidency in the “revolution of 1800,” nullification became moot.
The “tariff of abominations” of 1828 revived the issue. By this time in the United States, the North had become economically dominant due to manufacturing, and the South was beginning to suffer from exhausted land. The government enacted tariffs on foreign manufactures to protect Northern business, which raised the price of goods to be sold throughout the US. South Carolinians in particular were upset by their inability to afford these goods which the South could not produce. South Carolina threatened to secede from the Union.
John Calhoun, then Vice-President in the Jackson administration, promoted nullification as a moderate alternative to secession. A state would be able to nullify a federal law and exist as part of the Union unless three-fourths of the states passed the law as a constitutional amendment. In that case, the state would secede from the Union. Calhoun’s theory of “concurrent majority” essentially gave each regional interest an absolute veto.
Calhoun wanted to preserve the Union and intended to use the threat of nullification simply to force the federal government to reduce tariff rates, but the 1830 Webster-Hayne debate in Congress divided the nation over nullification. A North versus West controversy about public lands in the frontier turned into a Southern and Western ideological struggle against Northeastern “tyranny.”
President Jackson considered nullification to be treasonous. Jackson stated his view with the following toast at a Democratic Party banquet: “Our Federal Union-it must be preserved.” John Calhoun responded: “The Union-next to our liberty most dear.” Calhoun would resign as Vice-President and accept a Congressional seat from South Carolina.
In 1833, Congress passed a “force bill” which authorized Jackson to use violence to preserve the Union. A compromise on the tariff issue offered by Senator Henry Clay was passed in 1842, which gradually reduced rates to the 1816 level. Thirty years later in the Civil War (1861-1865), after the secession crisis was heightened by the slavery issue, violence would finally settle the matter of nullification.
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