South Carolina Ordinance of Nullification Summary
The South Carolina Ordinance of Nullification was a proclamation issued by South Carolina that said certain legislation passed by the federal government was unconstitutional. As a result, South Carolina “nullified” the Tariff of 1828 and the Tariff of 1832.
Tariffs raised prices on imported goods and products by adding taxes. The revenue went to the federal government, and higher prices allowed American manufacturers to sell more of their products. Tariffs were part of a “protectionist” policy known as the “American System” that intended to create a self-sufficient American economy. However, they were also used as a political tool, and the passage of the Tariff of 1816 started the “Thirty Year Tariff War.”
In 1828, a new tariff bill was passed that was part of a political scheme to harm the re-election bid of President John Quincy Adams. The bill passed, hurt the economy, and was called the “Tariff of Abominations.” South Carolina and some other states responded by protesting the bill. The opposition in South Carolina was led by Vice President John C. Calhoun, who anonymously penned the “South Carolina Exposition and Protest,” which argued the tariffs could be “nullified” by the states. Over the next four years, opposition to tariffs increased in the South, highlighted by a tense debate on the floor of the U.S. Senate involving South Carolina Senator Robert Y. Hayne and Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster.
In 1832, a new tariff bill was passed. Although the Tariff of 1832, lowered taxes on imports it was still opposed by Southerners, especially in South Carolina. In November 1832, a special session of the South Carolina legislature issued a proclamation called the “South Carolina Ordinance of Nullification.” The Ordinance declared the tariffs of 1828 and 1832 unconstitutional and threatened secession. It started what is known as the “Nullification Crisis.” President Andrew Jackson responded by threatening to use the military to force the collection of customs duties in Charlestown. With the real possibility of civil war breaking out, Henry Clay and Calhoun devised the Compromise Tariff of 1833, which diffused the situation.
Quick Facts About the Ordinance of Nullification
- On 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
- The convention, known as the “Convention of the People of South Carolina,” passed the Ordinance of Nullification on November 24.
- The official title of the proclamation is “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 Ordinance of Nullification.
History of the South Carolina Ordinance of Nullification
In the Early National Period (1789–1828), manufacturing in America was relatively new. During the Colonial Period, American manufacturing was restricted by Britain’s Mercantile System and the Navigation Acts.
United States Constitution
Following the American Revolutionary War, the new nation operated under the Articles of Confederation, which was weak and did not give the Confederation Congress the ability to levy national taxes. At that time, without the involvement of the government, American manufacturing could not compete with British manufacturing.
Tariff of 1789
In 1789, the United States Constitution went into effect and gave Congress the power to levy taxes and regulate trade with foreign nations. That same year, the first customs duties were put in place by the Tariff of 1789 as a way to generate revenue for the federal government and protect American industries and manufacturers.
Hamilton’s Report and the Whiskey Rebellion
Two years later, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton issued the “Report on Manufactures,” which supported the idea of tariffs and excise taxes as a way to make the economy of the United States self-sufficient. The idea of taxation levied by the government did not sit well with some Americans. In fact, an excise tax on whiskey and other distilled spirits — the so-called “Whiskey Tax” — led to the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794.
The War of 1812
On the national front, tariffs were generally used to protect sectional manufacturers, however, protection of manufacturers in the North tended to harm consumers in the South or West, and vice versa. Just before the War of 1812, Henry Clay rose to prominence as a leader of the anti-British “War Hawks” who favored war with Britain and supported protectionist policies, including high tariffs on imports.
The Era of Good Feelings and Emergence of the Great Triumvirate
After the War of 1812 ended, America entered the “Era of Good Feelings,” which was actually a divisive time when sectional interests started to come to the forefront of national politics. During this time, three men started to emerge who have become known as the “Great Triumvirate” — Clay, who was from Kentucky, John C. Calhoun from South Carolina, and Daniel Webster from New Hampshire. Each of them represented sectional interests, but Clay is widely regarded as being a staunch supporter of the Union and the idea the three regions needed to rely on each other for the nation to enjoy long-term economic success. These three men would play a major role in the events that led to South Carolina’s Ordinance of Nullification.
Madison Introduces the Concept of the American System
The Treaty of Ghent ended the War of 1812 and restored peaceful relations between the United States and Great Britain. However, there were still issues between the two, including the fact that British products were widely available throughout the United States at low prices. This made it difficult for American manufacturers to compete. On December 5, 1815, President James Madison delivered his Annual Message to Congress and suggested a three-point plan to help the American economy grow and be able to compete on a worldwide scale. The three points were:
- The establishment of a National Bank.
- Federal funding of internal improvements for roads and canals to improve and increase transportation between states.
- The implementation of a protective tariff on imports added more products to the list of those that were taxed.
These points were the pillars of what would come to be known as the “American System.”
The Tariff of 1816 Starts the 30-Year Tariff War
Later that month, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander J. Dallas proposed a protective tariff that benefitted manufacturers in the North and Mid-Atlantic and farmers in the West. At that time, manufacturing was almost nonexistent in the South, and the Southern States also imported most of their goods and products from Great Britain. So the Tariff of 1816 helped manufacturers and farms in the North and West, but hurt consumers in the South. The passage of the Tariff of 1816 started what is known as the “Thirty Year Tariff War.”
At first, the tariffs were aimed at Britain. However, various treaties between Britain and the United States finalized borders and reduced British access to American markets. An argument can also be made that Britain realized the more America grew and expanded westward, the more people there would be to buy British goods and products. As a result, American manufacturing was able to increase with some level of success and allowed the federal government to operate with a surplus until 1819.
The Panic of 1819
Tariffs were one part of the American System, and a second part was established in 1817 when the Second Bank of the United States went into operation. Unfortunately, a downturn in the global economy after the end of the Napoleonic Wars affected the United States. On top of that, a complex economic situation tied to land speculation and questionable lending practices of the National Bank led to foreclosures on farms in the west. Bankruptcy and unemployment followed and contributed to a massive drop in the price of cotton — as much as 25%. In January 1819, the American economy went into a recession, known as the “Panic of 1819.” At the federal level, the recession caused a temporary drop in revenue and led to support in some areas of the country for higher tariffs and an expanded list of protected products. Although tariffs helped bring in revenue for the government, it can be argued that during the Tariff War they were primarily used as a political tool to win votes.
Causes of the South Carolina Ordinance of Nullification
The American System and the Tariff of 1824
The sectional conflict over tariffs came to a head when a new protective tariff was proposed in 1824. On March 30 and 31, 1824, Henry Clay, who was the Speaker of the House of Representatives, delivered a speech that supported and defended the tariff. He said:
“And what is this tariff? It seems to have been regarded as a sort of monster, huge and deformed,—a wild beast, endowed with tremendous powers of destruction, about to be let loose among our people, if not to devour them, at least to consume their substance. But let us calm our passions, and deliberately survey this alarming, this terrific being. The sole object of the tariff is to tax the produce of foreign industry, with the view of promoting American industry. The tax is exclusively leveled at foreign industry. That is the avowed and the direct purpose of the tariff. If it subjects any part of American industry to burdens, that is an effect not intended, but is altogether incidental, and perfectly voluntary.”
Clay also gave a name to the system that he had been a champion of, which had been supported by President Madison. He called it the “American System” and explained how the tariff was a key to creating a self-sustaining American economy. Clay’s speech was a success and the Tariff of 1824 passed and went into effect in May. Although it was praised in the Northwest and Mid-Atlantic, there was strong opposition in the South.
The Election of 1824 and the “Corrupt Bargain”
The election of 1824 was hotly contested and ended with John Quincy Adams winning the Presidency in a controversial fashion over Andrew Jackson. None of the candidates for President received a majority of the electoral votes and the decision was left to the House of Representatives. Henry Clay, who finished fourth in the race, convinced members of the House to vote for Adams. Afterward, Adams appointed Clay to the office of Secretary of State. Jackson and his supporters were furious and accused Adams and Clay of colluding against him. Representative George Kremer of Pennsylvania called it a “corrupt bargain.” Soon after, the Republican Party split in two. The faction that supported Adams and Clay formed the National Republicans and the “Jackson Men” formed the Democratic Republicans. Clay and Jackson would be bitter rivals for the remainder of their careers. Moving forward, Adams supported Clay’s American System, including high tariffs. Adams was sworn in as President on March 4, 1825.
The Woolens Bill of 1827
On January 10, 1827, a bill — known as the Woolens Bill of 1827 — was introduced in the House that proposed an increase in the taxes on woolen goods. The bill passed the House but was rejected by the Senate. The deciding vote in the Senate was cast by Vice President John C. Calhoun. Previously, Calhoun had been a supporter of tariffs, but over time he saw how they were being used to benefit the North at the expense of the South. For that reason, he voted against the Woolens Bill of 1827.
A proponent of the Woolens Bill of 1827 was business owner Lewis Tappan. Tappan was a Northern industrialist who is most well-known for his involvement in the Abolition Movement, including helping found the American-Anti Slavery Society in 1833. When his business interests were hurt by less expensive foreign goods — and increased domestic competition — Tappan started to support higher tariffs.
The Harrisburg Convention of 1827
When the Woolens Bill failed, he organized a convention in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania for business owners who favored tariffs. 100 delegates from 13 states attended the Harrisburg Convention of 1827, which lasted from July 30 to August 3. Tappan brought together a coalition of different industries, including wool, iron, cotton, and distilled spirits. The convention produced a pro-tariff memorial that was presented to Congress on December 24, 1827.
John C. Calhoun Suggests a State Veto of Federal Legislation
Shortly after the convention, John C. Calhoun wrote a letter to Senator Littleton Waller Tazewell from Virginia and accused the manufacturers of conspiring against consumers.
“The Harrisburgh Convention has commenced this state of things. It is the selected instrument to combine with greater facility the great geographical Northern manufacturing interest in order to enforce more effectually the system of monopoly and extortion against the consuming States.”
In that letter, dated August 25, Calhoun mentioned the possibility of a “veto” to stop the implementation of new tariffs.
“After much reflection, it seems to me, that the despotism founded on combined geographical interest, admits of but one effectual remedy, a veto on the part of the local interest, or under our system, on the part of the States.”
A Shift in Congressional Power and a Political Scheme Backfires
The 20th Congress of the United States convened on December 3, 1827. As John Quincy Adams’s term as President was winding down, Congressional power shifted to supporters of Andrew Jackson. As a result, the appeal from the Harrisburg Convention was rejected. However, with a new election looming, Jackson’s supporters devised a scheme to aid Jackson and hurt Adams.
Essentially, the members of the House Committee on Manufactures devised an outrageous tariff bill with taxes that were so high it had no chance for passage. They believed the failure of the bill would be blamed on Adams, which would hurt his chances for re-election and catapult Jackson to the White House. And if it passed, the taxes would be so high that people would blame Adams and vote for Jackson. John C. Calhoun and Martin Van Buren worked to create a coalition that would ensure the bill was not amended. Therefore, it would not pass.
The bill was introduced on January 31, 1828, and the debate started on March 4. A coalition of New England politicians tried to amend the bill, but the Calhoun-Van Buren coalition voted against the amendments. The House voted on the bill on April 23 — and it passed. A group of New Englanders decided it was important to support the concept of protective tariffs and voted in favor of the bill.
The bill moved to the Senate and passed on May 13 when Jackson supporters voted for it. Senator John Randolph of Virginia criticized the process and said it was nothing more than a plan to “manufacture…a President of the United States.”
After the bill was passed, Congressmen from South Carolina, including Senator Robert Y. Hayne, met to discuss the issue. They tried to create a coalition of Southern States to oppose the bill but failed. Vice President Calhoun was not involved in the meetings, but William C. Preston, a Representative in the South Carolina House, asked if he would provide the assembly with a report on the tariff. Calhoun responded by drafting what has come to be known as the “South Carolina Exposition and Protest,” or “Calhoun’s Protest.”
Adams Signs the Tariff of Abominations
On May 19, 1828, President Adams signed the Tariff of 1828 into law, which raised revenue by imposing customs duties — as much as 38% on goods and 45% on raw materials. While Adams could have vetoed the bill, it was a power rarely used by Presidents at the time — so he signed it. It was a political scheme that completely backfired and hurt all regions of the nation. It was referred to as the “Tariff of Abominations.”
South Carolina Exposition and Protest Protest
Calhoun’s report, although it was anonymous and did not have his name on it, was presented to the South Carolina legislature on December 19. In it, Calhoun outlined his objections to the tariff and argued it was unconstitutional. He referenced a portion of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, written by Founding Father Thomas Jefferson. Calhoun wrote:
“The Constitution of the United States was formed by the sanction of the States, given by each in its sovereign capacity…Mr. Jefferson…in the Kentucky resolutions on the same subject…states that – ‘The Government, created by this compact, was not made the exclusive or final judge of the extent of the powers delegated to itself; since that would have made its discretion, and not the Constitution, the measure of its powers; – but, as in all other cases of compact between parties having no common judge, each party has an equal right to judge for itself, as well of infractions as of the mode and measure of redress.’”
South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, and Virginia all passed resolutions condemning the Tariff of 1828 but took no further action. However, it set the stage for the fight that was to come over the Tariff of 1832.
The Election of 1828
Adams and Jackson ran for President again in 1828, and the Tariff of Abominations was a key issue. Jackson won and John C. Calhoun was his Vice-President. Jackson was sworn in on March 4, 1829.
From January 19–30, 1830, Daniel Webster of Massachusetts and Hayne debated protectionist tariffs on the floor of the Senate. The debate started after Senator Samuel A. Foot of Connecticut introduced legislation that proposed restrictions on the sale of public lands. Hayne and some others believed the proposal was meant to slow the growth and prosperity of the West in favor of the states in the Northeast. On January 19, Hayne spoke on the floor and argued “the very life of our system is in the independence of the States…and there is no evil more…than the consolidation of this government.” Webster replied on the 20th and accused the Southern States of having “indifference” toward the Union. The debate continued intermittently over the next few days, and Webster famously advocated for “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” and ended his speech on January 27 with “Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!”
The entire debate stands as one of the most famous debates to occur in American politics and included the idea of a state “nullifying” federal legislation. Ultimately, Webster argued the Union existed for the good of everyone and federal laws represented the will of the people, while Hayne argued the Union existed at the will of the states and had the authority to nullify federal law.
John C. Calhoun Delivers the Fort Hill Address
On July 26, 1831, Calhoun published the “Fort Hill Address” and said, “nullification” was a “fundamental principle of our system, resting on facts historically as certain as our revolution itself, and deductions as simple and demonstrative as that of any political, or moral truth whatever; and I firmly believe that on its recognition depend the stability and safety of our political institutions.”
Tariff of 1832
In his Annual Message to Congress in 1830, President Jackson suggested a revision to the Tariff of 1828. Despite this, opposition to the tariff continued to grow in South Carolina over the next two years. In 1832, Jackson was President and John Quincy Adams was a member of the House of Representatives. As Chairman of the House Committee on Manufactures, Adams played a key role in writing a new bill that did, in fact, lower the taxes in the Tariff of Abominations. However, it was still a protectionist tariff and favored manufacturers in the North. It passed both Houses of Congress and was signed by Jackson on July 14, 1832.
South Carolina Nullifies the Tariffs and the Nullification Crisis Begins
In October, elections were held in South Carolina and supporters of nullification took control of the state. On the 22nd, Governor James Hamilton Jr. called an extra session of the South Carolina legislature. At that session, the legislature called for a state convention, which took place on November 19 in Columbia, South Carolina. Within a week, on November 24, 1832, the Convention of the People of South Carolina endorsed a proclamation known as the “South Carolina Ordinance of Nullification.” It declared the tariffs of 1828 and 1832 to be “null and void” in South Carolina because they were unconstitutional.
The proclamation also stated that if “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 Ordinance of Nullification also:
- Prohibited the collection of customs related to the Tariff of 1828 and 1832, starting on February 1, 1833.
- Required public officials to take an oath to “obey, execute, and enforce” the provisions of the Ordinance.
- Prohibited any court cases that came about due to the Ordinance from appealed to the Supreme Court.
Further, the Ordinance addressed the issue of the federal government using force against South Carolina. It said:
“…we are determined to maintain this our ordinance and declaration… declare that we will not submit to the application of force on the part of the federal government…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, and do all other acts and things which sovereign and independent States may of right do.”
With that, South Carolina threatened to consider secession. The Ordinance set off the chain of events known as the Nullification Crisis of 1832–1833.
Significance of the South Carolina Ordinance of Nullification
The South Carolina Ordinance of Nullification was important to the history of the United States because it fueled the Nullification Crisis and pushed the nation to the brink of a civil war. It was an early battle over the concept of “State’s Rights,” which was used, in part, to justify the secession of the Southern States prior to the outbreak of the Civil War.
Frequently Asked Questions About the South Carolina Ordinance of Nullification
The South Carolina Ordinance of Nullification is defined as a proclamation issued by South Carolina in 1832 that said two federal laws were unconstitutional and could not be enforced in the state. Further, South Carolina threatened to secede from the Union if the federal government tried to enforce the laws.
President Andrew Jackson threatened to use military force against South Carolina. In 1833, Congress passed the Force Bill, which gave Jackson the authority he needed. Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun developed the Compromise Tariff of 1833, which brought an end to the Nullification Crisis. However, the threat of secession still existed and South Carolina carried through with it after Abraham Lincoln was elected President.