What Was Nullification?

Q. "What was the nullification thing all about?" (Jim H., Northfield).

A. "Nullification" is the name for the theory that a state had the right to "nullify" (i.e., veto) within its own borders federal legislation that it found unconstitutional. The idea can be found in Thomas Jefferson's Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 (in response to the Alien and Sedition Acts), and found its classic expression in John C. Calhoun's 1831 "Fort Hill Address" (in response to the protective tariff of 1828).

We take it for granted that the Supreme Court has the final word on the constitutionality of legislation. But the principle of judicial review by the Supreme Court was not firmly established in the nineteenth century, and men like Jefferson and Calhoun propounded an alternative principle, which gave states the right to pass judgment on the constitutionality of federal laws. In the early 1830s, Southerners, like South Carolina's Calhoun, were angered by a high tariff which they believed favored the industrial North against the agricultural South. Calhoun was afraid that increased federal authority, as represented by the tariff, would eventually threaten the institution of slavery.

The 1820s and 1830s saw the beginning of the Whig Party, under the leadership of Kentucky's Henry Clay, which advocated expansion of federal authority to build national roads, and establish national institutions like a national university. Southern Democrats, in the tradition of Jefferson, opposed this expansion of federal power and advocated what has become known as "states' rights." Should the United States be a true Union, with power concentrated in a strong central government, or a looser confederation of sovereign states with the power to reject federal laws? In 1830, the jury was still out. In that year, a memorable debate took place in the Senate between Calhoun's point man, Senator Robert Hayne, and the great orator from New England, Senator Daniel Webster. The Webster-Hayne debate, ostensibly about the disposition of public lands in the West, laid on the table all of the issues that pitted states rights against the idea of Union. For Southern Democrats, it was a matter of liberty, of freedom from the shackles of federal authority. For Northern Whigs, it was a matter of union, of holding the United States together and consolidating its strength. Webster's great rhetorical coup was to link liberty and union, to unite the two ideas as the cornerstones of American democracy. In retrospect, Webster's side won—but it wasn't until the Civil War that Webster's idea of "liberty and union, now and forever, one and inseparable" became a sacred American creed.

Comments

Jim H. said…
The movie: Nullification, with Johnny Depp as Daniel Webster, Steve Buschemi as Hayne.

Screenplay by Rob Hardy.

This needs to happen!

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