Why Nullification Mattered in the 19th Century and Why It Matters Now

Edited from U.S. History Review Text by Paul M. Roberts, p. 158. 

In 1828, while Adams was President, Congress imposed a stiff tariff on imports. Southerners, who relied on such imports, found this repugnant because it increased the costs of manufactured goods they had to buy, and argued that the Federal Government was simply increasing the profits of Northern businesseses at the expense of Southern farmers.  Southerners called this a "tariff of abominations." Objecting to this, and a subsequent 1832 protectionist tariff which did lower rates, the South Carolina Legislature adopted an Ordinance of Nullification which declared the laws inoperative and prohibited officials from collecting the funds. They added that if such attempts were made, that the state would leave the Union.  President Jackson sent South Carolina a firm message asserting that no state may disobey the laws of the land nor secede.  He was prepared to use military means to get his point across but the Great Compromiser, Henry Clay, then a US Senator, was able to forge a deal (The Compromise Tariff of 1833)  that gradually lowered the tariff over ten years. This process preserved the supremacy of the Federal Government over the states, but was representative of anger within parts of the American Government that would not subside.



Whether States Need to Obey Federal Law

  • What similarities are there between the issues in the 1830s and the attempts by some states to ignore aspects of the new Health Care Law?
  • Are there other laws that states wish to ignore?  If so, which states and what laws?
  • How do concerns over taxes today parallel arguments made by people like Calhoun?  Which politicians today most closely resemble Calhoun? Does anyone?
  • Can reducing agency enforcement of existing law have the same effect as legislating from the Executive Branch or the Judiciary?  What does the word "legislate" mean in this context?
  • Could there be an equivalent today of a "Force Bill?"