Slavery was a morally corrupt and abhorrent institution that should have never existed.
No question. No debate.
Now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk about nullification’s history in the Southern states prior to the Civil War.
Over time, a Paul Bunyan type myth has grown suggesting that the Southern states were strong advocates of nullification as a means to protect their institution of slavery. In 2011, Rachel Maddow presented a news segment on her show about nullification. She stated that John C. Calhoun was a proponent of both slavery and nullification, more than implying the two are linked.
If that was the case, it would be pretty gross.
But it’s not.
Southern states never attempted to nullify anything in defense of slavery.
There is no dispute that Calhoun defended slavery. He was a slaver. In that sense, he’s a reprehensible character. And he also advocated for nullification.
However, Calhoun didn’t suggest using nullification as a means to maintain slavery. During the Nullification Crisis, Calhoun advocated the nullification doctrine as a means to protect Southern states against high tariffs that were impacting the Southern exports. Again, he advocated nullification against tariffs not for the promotion of slavery. During her televised segment, Maddow never mentioned the word, “tariffs.” Not once.
To demonize nullification because a slaver advocated the principle for something unrelated to slavery is nothing more than a textbook ad hominem attack.
If you bought into that false narrative, you should be forgiven. After all, conventional wisdom links the two. But now you know the truth. And if your mistaken perception that nullification was all about slavery led you to abhor the doctrine, the actual history of nullification should lead you to embrace the principles with abandon!
Leading up to the Civil War, Northern state Senators and Representatives stood up for the due process rights of their black citizens and passed Personal Liberty Laws, effectively nullifying the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.
This act counts among the most evil pieces of legislation in American history. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made a farce of due process, allowing for the arrest of a suspected runaway slave based on the word of the “property owner.” He simply had to swear an affidavit attesting to his “ownership” of the person in question, and he was allowed to drag that man or woman back South into slavery. The accused wasn’t even allowed to present evidence in his own defense. The act was meant to protect the “property” of slave holders, but many free blacks found themselves accused of escaping slavery and faced the prospect of living out their life on a plantation. Kidnapping of free blacks was not unusual. And northerners understood that even an accused runaway should remain innocent until proven guilty, and enjoy basic due process rights.
Instead of simply submitting to federal authority and quietly participating in constitutionally dubious and morally repugnant fugitive-slave roundups, northern lawmakers aggressively resisted the fugitive slave acts. Officials in these states did everything within their power to thwart enforcement, including denying federal agents the use of jails, and even impeaching state officials who lent support to fugitive-slave claimants.
The Michigan legislature passed a law guaranteeing habeas corpus rights and a jury trial to any accused runaway, all in defiance of federal “law.” Michigan also prohibited the use of state or local jails by slave catchers. The Wisconsin’s Supreme Court even ruled the Fugitive Slave Act unconstitutional in the wake of the Joshua Glover case. Vermont passed a “Habeas Corpus” law requiring state officials to aid captured slaves, defying provisions in the Fugitive Slave Act.
Southerners were not pleased. They needed northern submission to central authority to maintain slavery. The idea that southerners were all about “states’ rights” is something of a myth. They were for state sovereignty when it suited them. But when it came to slavery, they were the ardent nationalists, pleading for strong federal action. It was the northern states were asserting their sovereignty and nullifying an unconstitutional act.
Virginia Governor John B. Floyd warned that Northern nullification efforts of the Fugitive Slave Act could lead to the South to secede.
South Carolina lists Northern nullification as one of their reasons to secede in their Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Caroline from the Federal Union:
The States of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa, have enacted laws which either nullify the Acts of Congress or render useless any attempt to execute them. In many of these States the fugitive is discharged from service or labor claimed, and in none of them has the State Government complied with the stipulation made in the Constitution. [Emphasis added]
Even Jefferson Davis argued against nullification in his Farewell Address to the Senate. He insisted states have the right to secede since they are sovereign. However, he argued states couldn’t remain in the union and nullify laws, calling nullification and secession “antagonistic principles.”
Maddow left that out, eh? And in all likelihood, so did your history professor!
The myth that the Southern states advocated nullification as means to protect slavery is bunk. Plain and simple. Just ask yourself this question: if the Fugitive Slave Act was passed to protect Southern slavery, then what exactly did the South have to nullify?
Slavery was the law of the land – enjoying the full support and protection of the federal government.
So, do you stand with slavers in their unwavering faith in the sanctity of federal acts and their appeal for unquestioning submission to federal power? Or do you stand with northerners who recognized abhorrent unconstitutional overreach and boldly nullified?