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Internet Biography of Andrew Jackson
Continued from 1832: Andrew Jackson Re-elected
The question of the relation of states to the federal government was debated as the Constitution was written. With the Constitution in place the arguments did not cease. We have seen the President Andrew Jackson had no problem with the state of Georgia nullifying a Supreme Court ruling, when Jackson did not like that (pro-Cherokee) ruling himself. But for the most part Andrew Jackson was a nationalist who believed that no state had a right to disobey him, especially given that he was the elected President of the United States.
South Carolina citizens had always tended to be defensive of their state's sovereign rights. Their great disagreement with the federal government in this era was about tariffs, the tax on imports. South Carolina citizens wanted a low tax on imports that would let them buy European manufactured goods at fair prices compared to their exports of food, tobacco and cotton. Instead Congress had passed high tariffs to protect northern manufacturers and to generate revenue to pay for road and canal projects that benefitted the western states.
The national tariff law was declared void by the South Carolina legislature on November 24, 1832, with a date of February 1, 1833 for putting this into effect in South Carolina's ports. The legal argument given was that the states were the final arbiters of when Congress had exceeded its constitutional authority. Further, the state declared that if the federal government used force to keep the tariff in effect, it would seceed from the union. While it acted alone, anti-tariff, pro-nullification sentiment existed in other states as well, notably Virginia and Georgia. [See South Carolina Ordinance of Nullification]
Jackson reinforced federal forts in South Carolina and sent eight ships to train their guns on the people of Charleston [James, p. 610]. He privately threatened to send fifty thousand troops to invade the state. [But his proclamation to Congress on December 10, 1832, was softer, even recommending a reduction of the tariff. Jackson reasons at great length upon the impracticality of allowing a state to declare a law passed by Congress to be unconstitutional and therefore void. He explains the problems (as federalists saw them) with the Articles of Confederation, and follows the standard argument that the Constitution was specifically written to give Congress real power over the states. He calls nullification "incompatible with the existence of the Union, contradicted expressly by the letter of the Constitution."
For the most part the nation, its politicians, and its newspapers rallied around the idea of union. But as men volunteered for the militia to invade South Carolina, in that state the population rallied to form a powerful militia to defend itself and its sovereignty. Jackson opined that the raising of troops by South Carolina in itself constituted treason. Martin Van Buren, his new Vice President, argued that such an interpretation of the treason clause of the Constitution was subject to abuse and best avoided. Van Buren wished to be President, and though from New York State would need the votes of Virginia, where the right to secede had always been held sacrosanct [James, 615]. Meanwhile a bill to substantially reduce tariffs was brought before the House of Representatives, but not passed.
In mid-January Jackson asked Congress for the authority to use force to collect customs duties. But days passed with Congress unable to agree on a bill. Jackson prepared to call out the militias of the other states. But on January 21, 1833 the South Carolina legislature backed down, suspending their nullification ordinance. Jackson still pushed for his "Force Bill" or "Bloody Bill" as it was called. Henry Clay seized the day by offering a mild tariff reduction of 20% over ten years. A long delay in Congress allowed for calming, and both the Force Bill and the new tariff bill were passed by Congress and signed by the President on the dame day. On March 15, 1833, South Carolina's nullification ordinance was reversed by her legislature. Andrew Jackson was seen as the victor, and without actual violence, making him even more popular, but Henry Clay and John Calhoun also emerged with heightened prestige. The questions of nullification and the right of a state to seceed from the union had merely been postponed.
Main source: The Life of Andrew Jackson by Marquis James, Bobbs-Merrill company, 1938.
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