NULLIFICATION, the theory which holds that a state can suspend, within its boundaries, a federal law, was a deeply held conviction for many "states' rights" advocates in the nineteenth century, and one of the factors that led to the Civil War (1861–1865). Nullification has its roots in the Enlightenment era of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Political thinkers, such as John Locke, questioned the validity of "divine-right monarchies," and suggested that people had the right to over-turn laws, or entire governments, that did not benefit the governed.
The American Revolution (1775–1783), in which Americans declared themselves independent of Great Britain, was a practical extension of Enlightenment political thought. So was the first government of the United States—the Articles of Confederation—which had no strong central government and reserved most major statutory power for the individual states.
However, the Articles were too weak to function adequately, and in 1787 national leaders drafted the Constitution, which created a strong federal government but reserved many rights to the states. Almost immediately, Antifederalists and later Democrat-Republicans charged that the federal government had amassed too much power.
President John Adams, a Federalist, angered Democrat-Republicans when he sought broad protectionist powers with the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. In the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, both Democrat-Republicans, said that the Alien and Sedition Acts were unconstitutional and that states should nullify them. They reasoned that states had given power to the Constitution by approving it in the ratification process, and they could take that power away if it became abusive. While no state nullified the Alien and Sedition Acts, Jefferson and Madison had sanctioned the idea.
In 1828, nullification nearly split the nation. To help domestic manufactures, Congress enacted a high tariff on imported goods. Southerners, afraid that European states would retaliate with high tariffs on cotton and other southern exports, decried the act as the "Tariff of Abominations" and called for its repeal. Vice President John C. Calhoun, a South Carolinian, penned his "South Carolina Exposition and Protest," in which he invoked the theory of nullification to deal with the tariff.
When Tennessean Andrew Jackson was elected President in 1828, Southerners expected him to back a reduced tariff. Instead, Congress enacted an even higher tariff in 1832. Enraged, Calhoun, now a South Carolina senator more stridently called for nullification.
Spurred by Calhoun's rhetoric, the South Carolina legislature passed an Ordinance of Nullification, making the federal tariff null and void and making it a state offense to collect the tariff after 1 February 1833. Jackson surprised Southerners when he backed congressional passage of a "Force Bill" that authorized federal troops to occupy South Carolina and collect the tariff. In the meantime, Congress also passed a "compromise," or reduced tariff. Pleased with the compromise but shaken by Jack-son's threat of force, the South Carolina legislature reconvened in March 1833 and rescinded the Ordinance of Nullification. But to avoid looking cowed by the U.S. Congress, legislators "nullified" the federal Force Bill before they adjourned.
Northern states also dabbled with nullification. In 1814, old line Federalists in New England, angry over Democrat-Republican policies that caused the War of 1812 (1812–1815), sought to nullify federal mandates. And in 1850, some Northern states nullified new fugitive slave laws, part of the Compromise of 1850, that mandated Northern authorities return escaped slaves to the South. Traditionally, though, nullification and states' rights doctrines were the hallmarks of the antebellum South.
Brinkley, Alan et al. American History: A Survey. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1991.
See alsoAlien and Sedition Laws .
thomas jefferson first suggested the doctrine of nullification in the second Kentucky Resolutions (1799), where he asserted that the sovereign states are the only proper judges of whether the federal government has violated the Constitution and "that a nullification … [by] those sovereignties, of all unauthorized acts…isthe rightful remedy." (See virginia and kentucky resolutions.) In the 1820s, South Carolinians Robert J. Turnbull and Whitemarsh Seabrook laid the doctrinal foundations of an expanded nullification argument by denouncing the expansion of federal authority. In Consolidation (1824), thomas cooper argued that the states remained independent sovereigns, having given only limited and express powers to Congress.
john c. calhoun systematized and refined the Carolinians' constitutional arguments. He maintained that the people of the separate states never relinquished their sovereignty, and that sovereignty was indivisible. In ratifying the Constitution, the states created a government of limited, specified, and delegated authority. Calhoun used the legal doctrine of agency to explain the federal relationship: "The States … formed the compact, acting as sovereign and independent communities. The General Government is but [their] creature … a government emanating from a compact between sovereigns … of the character of a joint commission… having, beyond its proper sphere, no more power than if it did not exist." ("Address on the Relation of the States and the Federal Government," 1831.) When the federal government (the agent) exceeded its authority, the states (the principals), in the exercise of their sovereign power, could "interpose" their authority by nullifying the federal statute or action, which would be void in the nullifying states. If three-fourths of the other states adopted a constitutional amendment empowering the federal government to perform the nullified act, the state then had the choice of acquiescing or of withdrawing from the compact (the federal Constitution) by secession. But Calhoun emphasized that nullification was a peaceable alternative, not a preliminary step, to secession.
Calhoun's theory found application in a dispute, ostensibly over protective tariffs, that produced the Nullification Crisis of 1832. For a decade, Carolinians had declared that their objections to specific federal programs such as internal improvements or the national bank were merely specific parts of a larger objection to federal intrusion into the states' internal autonomy. The antitariff struggle was, in James Henry Hammond's metaphor, a "battle at the outposts" to prevent an assault on the real "citadel," slavery. When the Tariff of 1832 failed to meet Carolinian demands for an abrogation of the 1828 Tariff of Abominations, a South Carolina convention adopted an ordinance nullifying it and prohibiting its enforcement in the state.
president andrew jackson reacted forcefully. In his "Proclamation to the People of South Carolina" (1832), he denounced the theory of secession, insisting that the federal government was a true government to which the states had surrendered a part of their sovereignty. (See jackson ' sproclamation.) "Disunion by armed force is treason," he warned. Congress enacted the force act (1833), which provided for alternative means of collecting the tariff in South Carolina and enhanced the president's power to use militia and regular forces to suppress resistance to federal authority. Congress also began a downward revision of the tariff. With the crisis over the tariff assuaged, the South Carolina legislature denounced Jackson's "Proclamation" and a subsequent convention made the empty gesture of nullifying the Force Act.
In 1837, Calhoun offered six congressional resolutions that would have opened all federal territories to slavery. Congress adopted four of these, including one declaring that the federal government was only a "common agent" of the states and possessed only "delegated" powers. But antislavery agitation in the North increased, and many Northerners endorsed the wilmot proviso (1846), which would have excluded slavery from the territories acquired as a result of the Mexican War. To meet this threat, other southern radicals, including Robert Barnwell Rhett, Edmund Ruffin, and William Lowndes Yancey, turned to secession, which subsumed nullification.
Though the Union victory in the civil war left the doctrines of state sovereignty, interposition, nullification, and secession all defunct, southern political leaders briefly and ineffectually exhumed interposition theories during efforts in the late 1950s to thwart desegregation in southern universities and schools.
William M. Wiecek