Nullification Crisis

1832–1833

On November 24, 1832, the Convention of the People of South Carolina approved the South Carolina Ordinance of Nullification, precipitating a constitutional crisis that nearly triggered a civil war in the United States.

John C Calhoun, Portrait

Led by U.S. Vice-President John C. Calhoun, a special Convention of the People of South Carolina adopted the South Carolina Ordinance of Nullification, on November 24, 1832, declaring that both the Tariff of 1828 and the Tariff of 1832 were unconstitutional and that the citizens of South Carolina considered them to “be held utterly null and void.” The document sparked a confrontation between the federal government and the State of South Carolina known as the Nullification Crisis. Image Source: Wikipedia.

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Nullification Crisis Summary

The Nullification Crisis of 1832 was a political dispute between the Federal Government and the government of South Carolina over tariffs that were designed to protect manufacturers in the Northern states who were competing with British manufacturers. The tariffs imposed heavy taxes on British products, which hurt the economies of the Southern states. In 1832, South Carolina responded to the tariffs by a proclamation known as the South Carolina Ordinance of Nullification, which challenged the authority of the Federal Government by nullifying the tariffs and declaring them unconstitutional. As the dispute escalated, South Carolina also threatened to secede. President Andrew Jackson responded by issuing a proclamation that made it clear he intended to preserve the Union and he also sent troops to Charleston. Senators Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun brokered the Compromise Tariff of 1833, which helped bring the crisis over tariffs to an end.

Andrew Jackson, Portrait, Painting
Andrew Jackson was President of the United States during the Nullification Crisis. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Quick Facts About the Nullification Crisis

  • Date Started: The Nullification Crisis started in 1832 when South Carolina threatened to secede from the Union.
  • Date Ended: It ended in 1833 with the Compromise Tariff of 1833.
  • Location: The events that were part of the Nullification Crisis took place in South Carolina and Washington, D.C.

Important People Involved in the Nullification Crisis

  • President Andrew Jackson
  • Vice-President John C. Calhoun
  • Senator Robert Hayne
  • South Carolina Governor James Hamilton, Jr.
  • Senator Henry Clay

History of the Nullification Crisis

Congress Passes the Tariff of Abominations

On May 19, 1828, United States President John Quincy Adams approved an act of Congress commonly known as the Tariff of 1828. Congress designed the legislation to raise revenue for the federal government by imposing duties (taxes) on manufactured products and some raw materials imported into the United States. Many Americans referred to the law as the “Tariff of Abominations,” because its provisions protected manufacturers in the Northeast and farmers in the West, at the expense of Southerners and New Englanders. The tariff impacted the South severely because its cotton-based economy, combined with limited manufacturing, dictated a high dependency on imported items.

Tariff of 1832

By 1832, Congress became more receptive to Southern grievances regarding the Tariff of Abominations. On July 14, 1832, Congress enacted — and President Andrew Jackson approved — a new tariff commonly known as the Tariff of 1832. Although the new law reduced or eliminated some protective measures adopted in 1828, it did not go far enough to appease many Southerners, especially in South Carolina.

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South Carolina Ordinance of Nullification

The lower duties enacted in the Tariff of 1832 did not placate firebrands in the South. At the urging of U. S. Vice-President John C. Calhoun and U. S. Senator Robert Hayne, South Carolina Governor James Hamilton, Jr., called a special session of the state legislature in 1832. On October 25, the legislature enacted a measure authorizing a statewide convention to consider a response to the enactment of the Tariff of 1832.

The Convention of the People of South Carolina convened in Columbia on November 19, 1832. On November 24, by a vote of 136 to twenty-six, the delegates endorsed a proclamation drafted by William Harper entitled, “An ordinance to nullify certain acts of the Congress of the United States,” purporting to be laws laying duties and imposts on the importation of foreign commodities.

More commonly known as the South Carolina Ordinance of Nullification, the report declared that both the Tariff of 1828 and the Tariff of 1832 were unconstitutional and that the citizens of South Carolina considered them to “be held utterly null and void.” Seeking to punctuate the seriousness of their resolve, the convention members concluded the document by declaring that in response to “any act authorizing the employment of a military or naval force against the State of South Carolina . . . the people of this State will henceforth hold themselves absolved from all further obligation to maintain or preserve their political connection with the people of the other States; and will forthwith proceed to organize a separate government.”

The convention adjourned on November 24, 1832, and distributed copies of the ordinance to President Jackson and the governor of each state in the Union. The South Carolina legislature then busied itself crafting laws necessary to carry the Nullification Ordinance into effect. On December 20, the legislature passed “An Act to carry into effect in part, an Ordinance to Nullify certain Acts of the Congress of the United States.”

President Jackson Responds

President Jackson responded on December 10, 1832, with a proclamation nearly 9,000 words long, stating that:

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I consider, then, the power to annul a law of the United States, assumed by one State, incompatible with the existence of the Union, contradicted expressly by the letter of the Constitution, unauthorized by its spirit, inconsistent with every principle on which It was founded, and destructive of the great object for which it was formed.

While Jackson was somewhat conciliatory about the possibility of reducing duties, he insisted that “The Constitution of the United States . . . forms a government, not a league,” thus any perceived right to secede “does not break a league, but destroys the unity of a nation.” Jackson proclaimed his resolve “to execute the laws (and) to preserve the Union by all constitutional means,” including “recourse to force; and . . . the shedding of a brother’s blood,” if necessary.

To ensure that Southern firebrands did not take his warning this warning as an idle threat, Jackson sent General Winfield Scott to Charleston to take charge of federal troops garrisoned in South Carolina. Jackson also moved the U. S. Customs Office in Charleston to Castle Pinckney in Charleston Harbor, and he dispatched seven naval vessels to safeguard that facility.

Winfield Scott, Painting
Jackson sent Winfield Scott to South Carolina. Image Source: Wikipedia.

South Carolina Threatens to Secede

President Jackson’s proclamation prompted the South Carolina legislature to approve a response on December 20, 1833. The fifth of eleven resolutions specified in the response reaffirmed the state’s position:

That each state of the Union has the right, whenever it may deem such a course necessary for the preservation of its liberties or vital interests, to secede peaceably from the Union, and that there is no constitutional power in the general government, much less in the executive department, of that government, to retain by force such state in the Union.”

Not intimidated by Jackson’s threat to use force to enforce the tariff laws, the South Carolina legislature mobilized the state militia.

The Force Act

With the situation at an impasse, approximately two months later, Congress weighed in by enacting “An Act further to provide for the collection of duties on imports” on March 2, 1833. Commonly known as the Force Act, the legislation authorized “the president to use armed forces to protect customs officers and to prevent the unauthorized removal of untaxed vessels and cargo” in violation of the Tariffs of 1828 and 1832.

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Where did the concept of Nullification come from?

Minister Talleyrand, Portrait

The XYZ Affair. In 1797-98, France tried to bribe the United States. It created anti-French sentiment and led to the Quasi-War with France.

John Adams, Portrait, Stuart

Alien and Sedition Acts. In 1798, the government responded to the XYZ Affair by passing a series of laws that restricted free speech.

Thomas Jefferson, Painting, Rembrandt Peale

Virginia and Kentucky Resolves. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison responded to the Alien and Sedition Acts — and created the concept of Nullification.

Outcome of the Nullification Crisis

With the nation teetering on the brink of civil war, Senator Henry Clay from Kentucky and Senator John C. Calhoun from South Carolina hurriedly brokered a compromise measure to diffuse the situation. Congress designed the new tariff — the Compromise Tariff of 1833 — to reduce protectionist duties gradually until 1842. In 1842, all duties would revert to a uniform level in line with the Tariff of 1816. The compromise provided Southerners the tariff relief they sought while giving domestic manufacturers nine years to adjust to reduced government protection when competing with foreign rivals.

Aftermath of the Nullification Crisis

Unable to muster support from the other Southern States, South Carolina adopted a more conciliatory stance after the enactment of the Tariff of 1833. On March 11, 1833, the Convention of the People of South Carolina was re-convened in Columbia. Satisfied that their rebellious stance had forced Congress to bend to their will, the delegates voted 153-4 to rescind the Nullification Ordinance on March 15, 1933.

Although the convention repealed the Nullification Ordinance, it did not repudiate the doctrine of nullification. Before dissolving the convention on March 18, 1833, the delegates approved an ordinance nullifying the Force Act by a vote of 132-19. With bloodshed averted, and the Union preserved, President Jackson wisely ignored the convention’s final act of defiance. Still, the issues of nullification and secession remained undecided, and the ominous specter of civil war lingered on the horizon.

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Significance of the Nullification Crisis

The Nullification Crisis was important because it was the first time a dispute between the Federal Government and a state government teetered on the verge of civil war. Although the Tariff of 1833 helped ease tensions, it did not resolve the regional differences between the North and the South, nor did it resolve the issue of state’s rights. When South Carolina threatened secession and passed the Ordinance of Nullification it set a precedent for future disputes between the Federal Government and the states. President Jackson’s handling of the Nullification Crisis also led to his political opponents forming the Whig Party.

Nullification Crisis for AP US History (APUSH)

Definition of the Nullification Crisis (APUSH)

The Nullification Crisis is defined as a political dispute between the Federal Government and the government of South Carolina over tariffs that were designed to protect manufacturers in the Northern states who were competing with British manufacturers. South Carolina threatened to secede from the Union and President Andrew Jackson sent Federal troops to Charleston. With the nation on the brink of civil war, a compromise was brokered by Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun, and hostilities were avoided.

5 Things to Know About the Nullification Crisis

  1. The Nullification Crisis was the first time a dispute between the Federal Government and a state government teetered on the verge of civil war.
  2. It amplified regional differences between the North and the South.
  3. It failed to resolve the complex and controversial issue of state rights.
  4. South Carolina’s actions set a precedent for future disputes between the Federal Government and the Southern states.
  5. President Jackson’s handling of the Nullification Crisis led to his political opponents forming the Whig Party.

Andrew Jackson and the Nullification Crisis — Video Overview

This video from History Brief provides an overview of the Nullification Crisis.

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Frequently Asked Questions About the Nullification Crisis

What was the Nullification Crisis?

The Nullification Crisis was a dispute between the federal government and the South Carolina government. South Carolina issued the Ordinance of Nullification which said the Tariffs of 1828 and 1833 were unconstitutional. The federal government responded with the Force Bill and a compromise tariff and South Carolina rescinded the Ordinance.

When was the Nullification Crisis?

The Nullification Crisis started on November 24, 1832, when South Carolina passed the Ordinance of Nullification, during the presidency of Andrew Jackson. The crisis essentially ended on March 15, 1833, when South Carolina rescinded the Ordinance. However, South Carolina passed legislation that nullified the Force Bill on March 18, 1833.

What caused the Nullification Crisis of 1832?

The Nullification Crisis was caused by Southern opposition to the Tariffs of 1828 and 1833, which raised prices on British goods that were imported into the South. Southern states believed the tariffs were designed to protect Northern manufacturers who competed with the British. The high prices hurt the Southern economy.

What role did Protectionism play in the Nullification Crisis?

Protectionism is a policy that favors domestic industries over foreign competition. In some cases, tariffs are used for protection. The politicians in South Carolina believed the Tariff of 1828 and the Tariff of 1832 were protectionist tariffs that were designed to protect manufacturers in the Northern States against British manufacturers.

How was the Nullification Crisis resolved?

The Nullification Crisis was resolved by the passage of the Compromise Tariff of 1833. The compromise was designed by Senator Henry Clay and Senator John C. Calhoun. The tariff lowered the protectionist duties until they were in line with the Tariff of 1816. South Carolina accepted the 1833 Compromise Tariff.

How did the Nullification Crisis lead to the Civil War?

The Nullification Crisis helped lead to the Civil War because it increased the sectional differences the North and South had over economics and the constitutionality of federal laws. South Carolina also threatened to secede, and President Jackson threatened to use the military, if necessary, to force South Carolina to comply.

Timeline of the Nullification Crisis

October 25, 1832

The South Carolina legislature enacted a measure authorizing a statewide convention to consider a response to the enactment of the Tariff of 1832.

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November 19, 1832

The Convention of the People of South Carolina convened in Columbia, South Carolina.

November 24, 1832

The delegates to the Convention of the People of South Carolina passed the South Carolina Ordinance of Nullification by a vote of 136 to 26.

The official title of the proclamation was “An ordinance to nullify certain acts of the Congress of the United States, purporting to be laws laying duties and imposts on the importation of foreign commodities.”

William Harper drafted the South Carolina Ordinance of Nullification.

The South Carolina Ordinance of Nullification stated three important things:

  1. That Congress exceeded its constitutional authority to lay duties for the purpose of raising revenue by instead imposing duties “intended for the protection of domestic manufactures and . . . classes and individuals . . . . “
  2. That “the people of the State of South Carolina . . . do declare and ordain” that the tariffs of 1828 and 1832 “are null, void, and no law, nor binding upon this State.”
  3. That “we, the people of South Carolina . . . do further declare that we will not submit to the application of force on the part of the federal government, to reduce this State to obedience, but that we will consider the passage, by Congress, of any act authorizing the employment of a military or naval force against the State of South Carolina . . . as inconsistent with the longer continuance of South Carolina in the Union; and that the people of this State will henceforth hold themselves absolved from all further obligation to maintain or preserve their political connection with the people of the other States; and will forthwith proceed to organize a separate government.”

November 24, 1832

The Convention of the People of South Carolina adjourned and distributed copies of the South Carolina Ordinance of Nullification to President Andrew Jackson and the governor of each state in the Union.

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December 10, 1832

President Andrew Jackson responded to the South Carolina Ordinance of Nullification by issuing A Proclamation Regarding Nullification.

In his Proclamation Regarding Nullification, President Andrew Jackson made clear his determination “to execute the laws (and) to preserve the Union by all constitutional means,” including “recourse to force; and . . . the shedding of a brother’s blood” if necessary.

In response to the South Carolina Ordinance of Nullification, President Andrew Jackson sent military reinforcements to the federal fortifications in Charleston Harbor.

December 20, 1833

The South Carolina legislature approved resolutions, including one that reaffirmed the state’s position, and threatened secession:

That each state of the Union has the right, whenever it may deem such a course necessary for the preservation of its liberties or vital interests, to secede peaceably from the Union, and that there is no constitutional power in the general government, much less in the executive department, of that government, to retain by force such state in the Union.”

The South Carolina legislature also voted to mobilize the state militia.

March 2, 1833

In response to the South Carolina Ordinance of Nullification, the U.S. Congress enacted “An Act further to provide for the collection of duties on imports,” commonly known as the Force Act.

The Force Act authorized “the president to use armed forces to protect customs officers and to prevent the unauthorized removal of untaxed vessels and cargo” in violation of the tariffs of 1828 and 1832.

Congress also enacted the compromise Tariff of 1833 that authorized the gradual reduction of many of the protective duties imposed by the tariffs of 1828 and 1832.

March 11, 1833

The Convention of the People of South Carolina was re-convened in Columbia.

March 15, 1833

The delegates to the Convention of the People of South Carolina voted 153-4 to rescind the South Carolina Ordinance of Nullification because Congress had enacted the compromise Tariff of 1833.

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March 18, 1833

Delegates to the Convention of the People of South Carolina approved an ordinance nullifying the Force Act by a vote of 132-19.

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Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Nullification Crisis
  • Coverage 1832–1833
  • Author
  • Keywords Nullification Crisis, John C. Calhoun, South Carolina
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date December 8, 2022
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update November 15, 2022

Nullification Crisis is Part of the Following on AHC

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