How did the Nullification Crisis Lead to the Civil War?

President Andrew Jackson (right) clashed with John C. Calhoun (top left), during the Nullification Crisis. Civil War was averted when Calhoun and Henry Clay (bottom left), agreed to the Compromise Tariff of 1833.

The Nullification Crisis (1832–33) led to the Civil War by increasing tension between the North and South over economic policies and creating a debate over a state’s ability to declare Federal laws unconstitutional. It set precedents for a President to use force against a state in the Union, and for a state to threaten secession.

The Nullification Crisis Was a Cause of the Civil War

The Nullification Crisis was a political dispute between the Federal Government and the government of South Carolina over Federal tariffs. The tariffs were part of Henry Clay’s American System and were designed to protect manufacturers in the Northern states who were competing with British manufacturers.

Henry Clay, Speaker of the House, Portrait, Jouett
Henry Clay. Image Source: U.S. Department of State, The Diplomatic Reception Rooms.

A Brief Overview of the Nullification Crisis

Although the outbreak of war over the Nullification Crisis was avoided, several events took place that contributed to the start of the Civil War (1861–1865).

Federal Tariffs Harmed the Economy of Southern States

The tariffs imposed heavy taxes on British products, which were popular in the South. Higher prices on British products hurt the economies of the Southern states. 

South Carolina Issued the Ordinance of Nullification

In 1832, South Carolina responded to the Tariff of 1828 and Tariff of 1832 with a proclamation, known as the South Carolina Ordinance of Nullification

The Ordinance challenged the authority of the Federal Government by nullifying the tariffs and declaring them unconstitutional.

South Carolina decided it would not enforce the tariffs and sent copies of the ordinance to President Andrew Jackson and the other 23 states in the Union.

President Jackson Threatened to Use Force

In response to the Ordinance of Nullification, President Jackson issued a proclamation on December 10, 1832 and declared:

“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.”

Jackson followed that by sending Federal troops, under the command of 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, General, Mexican-American War
General Winfield Scott (USA). Image Source: Yale University Library.

South Carolina Threatened to Secede

Ten days later, South Carolina issued another proclamation and threatened to secede from the Union by declaring:

“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.”

South Carolina also mobilized the state militia.

The Force Act

The Nullification Crisis continued into 1833. On March 2, Congress passed what is known as the “Force Act.” The new law allowed “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.

Calhoun and Clay Brokered a New Tariff that Avoided War

With the nation 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.

Observations on the Nullification Crisis Leading to the Civil War

Despite the ratification of the United States Constitution, there were questions about the nature of the Union. By ratifying the Constitution, did the States submit to its authority? Or did the States have the authority to abide by the Constitution as they saw fit?

These questions contributed to Nullification, Secession, and Congress authorizing the President to use the military to enforce laws.

Protectionist Tariffs Contributed to Sectionalism

The protectionist tariffs that were passed by the Federal Government were not necessarily a cause of the Civil War. However, they did contribute to the growth of secessionist feelings in the South.

Nullification was Established by the Kentucky and Virginia Resolves

The concept of “nullification” developed during the controversy over the legality of the Alien and Sedition Acts (1798). Passed by President John Adams and the Federalist, Party, the acts were intended to limit foreign influence on American politics. However, the acts were highly controversial and led Founding Fathers Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to write the Kentucky and Virginia Resolves.

Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State, Portrait, Peale
Thomas Jefferson. Image Source: U.S. Department of State, The Diplomatic Reception Rooms.

The Resolves challenged the Alien and Sedition Acts and argued they went beyond the powers specifically given to the Federal Government by the United States Constitution. 

In the Resolutions, Jefferson and Madison introduced the concept of Nullification. It was an idea that said individual states had the power to declare federal legislation null and void when it went beyond the powers given to the Federal Government in the Constitution.

South Carolina was not the First State to Consider Secession

Following the War of 1812, members of the Federalist Party who represented the New England states held the Hartford Convention. The Federalists had opposed the War of 1812 for economic reasons — much like the South was against high tariffs. The Hartford Convention discussed secession from the Union but ultimately rejected the idea. Instead, the Convention issued a report that suggested new Amendments to the United States Constitution.

Learn More about the Nullification Crisis on American History Central

Written by Randal Rust, with contributions from Harry Searles