Just before Andrew Jackson (1767–1845; served 1829–37) was elected president in 1828, Congress passed an extremely high protective tariff. A tariff is a tax applied to imported products—in this case, goods coming into the United States from other countries. Since tariffs raise the prices of imported goods, they make them less competitive within the market of the importing country. Within the United States, the 1828 tariff protected the prices of goods manufactured in the industrial North. The South had no such protections for its agricultural products. Southern farmers and plantation owners were squeezed at both ends, forced to buy manufactured goods from the North at a protected, higher price, and forced to compete on an unprotected, or open, international market with their cotton or tobacco exports.
Most Southerners hated the tariff, but the cotton planters of South Carolina were especially angry. Trade reprisals (acts of retaliation, such as not buying U.S. products) from Europe had taken away the South's best market. South Carolina was already facing an economic disaster. Its land was becoming depleted because of the adverse effects of cotton on the soil, while the rich cotton land in the U.S. Southwest was increasing competition. South Carolina felt it could not withstand the damage the proposed tariff would do to its economy.
Calhoun proposes nullification
South Carolina's most prominent politician, Vice President John C. Calhoun (1782–1850), turned to the U.S. Constitution to find a way for his state to avoid the tariff. In 1829, he secretly wrote and distributed copies of The South Carolina Exposition and Protest, a pamphlet with an unusual interpretation of the Constitution. Calhoun argued that the Union had not been formed directly by the people of the United States; it had been formed through the individual states, of which the people were citizens. The states themselves were the indivisible units of government that had formed the Union for their mutual benefit. According to Calhoun, it was the states, and not the federal government, that were sovereign, or supreme in power.
Obviously, South Carolina was not benefiting from the Tariff of 1828. Calhoun argued that when a state objected to a law passed by a majority in the Union, as South Carolina objected to the tariff, it had the right to nullify the law (block its enforcement) within its borders until three-quarters of the other states overruled its decision. At the time it was overruled, the state could choose to yield to the will of the other states, or to secede (withdraw) entirely from the Union.
The Exposition did not have much immediate effect in the South. As Jackson came into office, it was clear that he was an ardent supporter of the Union, and he voiced his outrage at the concept of nullification. The South had supported him in 1828, and after his election Southerners fully expected him to pull the tariff rates down. But they were mistaken. Jackson did sympathize with Southerners, but he also wanted to preside over a debt-free nation, and tariff revenues were an element in his plan. When Congress passed a new tariff in 1832, its rates were somewhat less than those of the Tariff of Abominations, what the 1828 tariff had come to be known. But they were still considered outrageous in South Carolina.
South Carolina was ready for drastic action. In the state elections of 1832, the “nullies” won a two-thirds majority, and the new state legislature promptly announced that the existing federal tariff was null and void within the borders of South Carolina. It further threatened to withdraw from the Union if the federal government attempted to collect the duties by force.
President Jackson declared that if South Carolina refused to collect the tariff and send the proceeds to Washington, D.C. , he would personally lead an army into the state. For a brief moment, violence loomed. But no other states joined South Carolina. U.S. senator Henry Clay (1777–1852) of Kentucky proposed an 1833 compromise tariff that would reduce the tariff's existing rate. Despite bitter debate, the tariff was eventually squeezed through Congress.
Neither Jackson nor the “nullies” won a clear victory in this contest, though South Carolina did come away with a lower tariff. After the conflict had subsided, Jackson expressed fears that the next logical step in the assertion of states’ rights (the idea that the powers of the federal government are limited and should not be allowed to interfere with the powers of the states to govern themselves) was secession . His fears proved well founded in 1860, when South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union at the outset of the American Civil War (1861–65). In the end, only the tragedy of the war was able to permanently resolve the question of secession raised in the nullification controversy. In its far-reaching and disastrous consequences for the United States, the concept of nullification became perhaps the most significant issue of Andrew Jackson's presidency.