Saturday, June 14, 2008

Was Nullification Really About Slavery?

The Nullification Crisis of 1832-33 arose out of South Carolina's protest of federal tariff policies. The question arises, however, whether nullification was "really" about slavery?

I don't think there is any doubt that, right or wrong, the outrage in South Carolina over the tariff was real. That is, South Carolina did not cook up a crisis over the tariff simply, or even primarily, to test or establish a precedent concerning nullification for use in a future dispute over slavery. Many, perhaps most, nullifiers embraced the concept without consciously drawing the connection.

That said, it is fair to say that at least some of the leaders of the secession movement in South Carolina realized that it might, some day, be necessary to play the nullification and/or secession cards, in response to a threat to the south's peculiar institution.

The most prescient of those leaders was, as you might suspect, none other than John Caldwell Calhoun. Almost two and a half years before the crisis came to a head, Calhoun wrote a letter to Virgil Maxcy, dated September 11, 1830, in which he explicitly made the link to the defense of slavery:
I consider the tariff act as the occasion, rather than the real cause of the present unhappy state of things. The truth can no longer be disguised, that the peculiar domestick institution of the Southern States and the consequent direction which that and her soil and climate have given to her industry, has placed them in regard to taxation and appropriations in opposite relation to the majority of the Union, against the danger of which, if there be no protective power in the reserved rights of the states they must in the end be forced to rebel, or, submit it to have their paramount interests sacrificed, their domestick institutions subordinated by Colonization and other schemes, and themselves and children reduced to wretchedness. Thus situated, the denial of the right to the State to interpose constitutionally in the last resort, more alarms the thinking, than all the other causes; and however strange it may appear, the more universally the state is condemned, and her right denied, the more resolute she is to assert her constitutional powers lest the neglect to assert should be considered a practical abandonment of them, under such circumstances.

At the height of the crisis, on February 25, 1833, the U.S. Telegraph drew the connection even more clearly:
If a state has no right to interpose and protect its citizens against unjust and oppressive laws . . . what security have the people of the south for their liberty and property? We are in the minority in Congress, and must forever continue so. We cannot control Congress. Every member from the South may hang together, and vote against their oppressive measures, and yet they cannot stop them, for the reason that they are in a minority. Let us suppose a case, and it is by no means an improbable one. Suppose the Congress should pass an act, declaring that all the slaves should be set free. We could not prevent this by our votes in Congress; for there the non-slaveholding states have two to one against us. No! We would have either to submit to this unjust or unconstitutional law, or resort to state interposition.

I should explain the relevance of the picture. Virgil Maxcy was killed in the 1844 explosion of a naval gun called the "Peacemaker" aboard the U.S.S. Princeton, which also killed President Tyler's Secretary of State Abel P. Upshur and Secretary of the Navy Thomas W. Gilmer. Maxcy's arm can been seen flying through the air in the middle of the lithograph. One final note: After Upshur's death, President Tyler named as his replacement . . . John Caldwell Calhoun.

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