Sunday, June 22, 2008

Andrew Jackson's Proclamation Regarding Nullification 1: Intro and State of the Union

On December 4, 1832, President Andrew Jackson issued his fourth annual State of the Union message to Congress. Six days later, on December 10, 1832, the president issued his Proclamation Regarding Nullification, addressing concerning South Carolina’s nullification of the tariffs of 1828 and 1832.

From the beginning, the president’s two statements were, and continue to be, regarded as wildly divergent in tone and political philosophy, to the point of being impossible to reconcile. The State of the Union message was, in the words of Professor Richard E. Ellis, “stridently states’ rights and agrarian in its tone and thrust.” The Proclamation, on the other hand,
tilted strongly in the direction of the nationalist theories of the Union that had been variously espoused by Daniel Webster, Joseph Story, John Quincy Adams, Nathan Dane, and others, and . . . tended to undercut the constitutional-ideological underpinnings of states’ rights in general.

I thought I’d take a few posts to walk through these documents, to see why people were stunned to the point of disbelief when Jackson issued his Nullification Proclamation.

Jackson issued his annual State of the Union message having been reelected in a landslide a month earlier over National Republican Henry Clay. With few exceptions, he laid out forcefully and clearly where he stood and what he advocated concerning the major issues of the day. In the process, he explained with equal force the philosophical beliefs that underlay his views on specific subjects. Let’s wade right in.

The first part of Jackson’s State of the Union message focused on international matters: the country’s peaceful and successful relations with foreign nations, and its flourishing international commerce. This in turn led to a review of the country’s revenues, which derived almost exclusively from tariffs levied on international imports. In the guise of praising the country, Jackson praised himself on an accomplishment in which he took great pride: the impending elimination of the national debt. “I can not too cordially congratulate Congress and my fellow citizens on the near approach of that memorable and happy event -- the extinction of the public debt of this great and free nation.”

Jackson indicated that this development justified a reduction in tariffs going forward. The “simplicity” of the federal government should require only modest revenue to sustain it:
The soundest maxims of public policy and the principals upon which our republican institutions are founded recommend a proper adaptation of the revenue to the expenditure, and they also require that the expenditure shall be limited to what, by an economical administration, shall be consistent with the simplicity of the Government and necessary to an efficient public service.

Likewise, in recommending that the federal government divest itself of all stocks, Jackson emphasized the “simple” and limited role that the general government should play, and suggested that ownership of the securities constituted an improper attempt to “influence” the states:
In conformity with principles heretofore explained, and with the hope of reducing the General Government to that simple machine which the Constitution created and of withdrawing from the States all other influence than that of its universal beneficence in preserving peace, affording an uniform currency, maintaining the inviolability of contracts, diffusing intelligence, and discharging unfelt its other super-intending functions, I recommend that provision be made to dispose of all stocks now held by it in corporations, whether created by the General or State Governments, and placing the proceeds in the Treasury. As a source of profit these stocks are of little or no value; as a means of influence among the States they are adverse to the purity of our institutions. The whole principle on which they are based is deemed by many unconstitutional, and to persist in the policy which they indicate is considered wholly inexpedient.

Jackson also recommended that the federal government abandon attempts to raise revenues by land sales. First, the principal goal should be to settle the land with independent farmers, whom Jackson portrayed as the backbone of society:
It can not be doubted that the speedy settlement of these lands constitutes the true interest of the Republic. The wealth and strength of a country are its population, and the best part of that population are cultivators of the soil. Independent farmers are every where the basis of society and true friends of liberty.

Furthermore, in the longer term, the federal government should, to the extent possible, get out of the land distribution business and turn over the “machinery” of land distribution to the states:
It seems to me to be our policy that the public lands shall cease as soon as practicable to be a source of revenue, and that they be sold to settlers in limited parcels at a price barely sufficient to reimburse to the United States the expense of the present system and the cost arising under our Indian compacts. The advantages of accurate surveys and undoubted titles now secured to purchasers seem to forbid the abolition of the present system, because none can be substituted which will more perfectly accomplish these important ends. It is desirable, however, that in convenient time this machinery be withdrawn from the States, and that the right of soil and the future disposition of it be surrendered to the States respectively in which it lies.

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