This week in history: John C. Calhoun and the Nullification Crisis

By Cody Carlson

For the Deseret News

Published: Monday, Dec. 17 2012 3:17 p.m. MST

Jon Meacham wrote in his book, “American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House”: “Calhoun kept his authorship of the 1828 document secret, and the vehemence of his views quiet. He believed that the white-haired general about to take the presidential oath would heed his counsel to slash the tariff, relieve the South, and calm fears of future interference with the region's way of life. Then, Calhoun hoped, his own hour would strike, and carry him to the White House.”

Jackson had no more sympathy for Calhoun's position than did Adams, and the two were soon at odds over the issues of nullification and secession. The tension came to a head in April 1830, when the two attended a dinner celebrating the deceased Thomas Jefferson's birthday in Washington.

In his book “The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln,” historian Sean Wilentz wrote of the historic banquet: “The gathering had been called by southerners and westerners sympathetic to Calhoun, and one toast after another proclaimed state-rights slogans and attacked sectional favoritism by the federal government. Jackson … raised his glass, glowered directly at Calhoun, and, as if issuing a dueler's challenge, gravely offered his own toast: 'Our Union — it must be preserved.' … though Calhoun's toast in reply was perfectly calm, its wordiness betrayed that he was on the defensive: 'The Union — next to our liberty the most dear; may we all remember that it can only be preserved by respecting the rights of the states and the distributing equally the benefits and burdens of the Union.' The breach was now public, and within weeks would become bitter political warfare ….”

Eventually, Calhoun opted not to continue as vice president, and instead ran for the Senate. Jackson offered a watered-down tariff that placated most Southerners in 1832. When South Carolina stated its dissatisfaction and continued talk of secession, Congress passed the Force Bill, which would allow the federal government to send a military force into South Carolina to collect the import duties and prevent secession.

Under the leadership of Sen. Henry Clay of Kentucky, Congress brokered a new compromise tariff. Aware that it could not effectively challenge the federal government alone, South Carolina accepted the compromise and repealed its ordinance of nullification in 1833. The crisis was over and the Civil War was delayed for another 30 years.

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is also the co-developer of the History Challenge iPhone/iPad apps. Email: ckcarlson76@gmail.com

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