If one Tennessee legislator gets his way, federal agents could be arrested for enforcing any potential assault weapons ban. But the concept of a state trying to cancel out federal measures was already tried 180 years ago. And the president who squashed that effort was one of Nashville’s most famous residents.
In 1832, the hot-button issue wasn’t guns, but tariffs–taxes on imported goods which many Southerners considered constitutionally suspect. South Carolina went so far as to declare the tariffs null and void, bar anyone from collecting them within that state, and even threatened to secede.
President Andrew Jackson responded with a proclamation taking apart the maneuver point by point.
“Near the end of it he appealed to South Carolinians directly and he said, ‘you’re Americans. You’re not just South Carolinians, you’re Americans,’ told them it was wrongheaded to consider national legislation merely from the point of local or state interest.”
University of Tennessee History Professor Daniel Feller says Jackson ultimately won that battle, showing that the Constitution simply doesn’t allow states to pick and choose which laws to follow. But Jackson also reminded states of a place they can protest: the Supreme Court.
Before the US instituted its first tariff in 1816, the US market was flooded with cheap, British merchandise. The tax was adopted as a means of protecting American manufacturing interests against those imports. Because the South had very little manufacturing capability at the time, the region benefitted little from the tax. What’s more, Southerners resented the way the tax drove up the prices on goods. In contrast, raising tariffs proved to be an effective political strategy for courting Northern voters. Campaign maneuvering was the genesis of Andrew Jackson’s 1828 tariff, which increased the tax on imports to as much as 50 percent on some goods.
South Carolina struggled economically throughout the 1820s, falling behind not only the industrial North but also cotton producing neighbor states. South Carolinian politicians lay heavy blame on the tariffs for keeping the state in a state of economic depression. A tariff compromise brought the rate down some in 1832, but it just wasn’t enough to satisfy the state’s leaders.
It’s in this context that John Calhoun resigned his post as Jackson’s Vice President, taking instead a Senate seat representing his home state of South Carolina. Calhoun helped develop the Doctrine of Nullification, which essentially said that because the US Constitution was enacted through ratification by democratically elected conventions in each state, similar conventions could determine whether or not an act of the federal government would be considered constitutional within that state. It was exactly this sort of gathering of state leaders–and not the South Carolina legislature–which issued the act protesting the tariff, declaring the federal measure unconstitutional on the grounds that it unfairly benefited one region at the expense of another.
Before issuing his proclamation, Jackson raised an army and sent it to South Carolina. That force did not take any action, although it stood ready to do so. After Jackson’s lengthy, detailed and, at times, colorful refutal of the state’s action, Congress did reaffirm the right of the president to use military force if necessary to back up federal law. At the same time, politicians moved towards a tariff compromise, reaching one in time to avert the crisis without bloodshed.
Calhoun remained a vocal advocate for state’s rights. The arguments used in South Carolina’s protest of the tariff bear a strong resemblance to those raised in the fight over slavery, and the Nullification Crisis of 1832 is marked by many historians as one of the first steps towards the outbreak of Civil War roughly three decades later.