Today in 1832, Vice President of the United States John Calhoun resigned from office after an ideological break with President Andrew Jackson. He became the first vice president to resign.
In 1828, Congress passed the Tariff of 1828 – which southerners called the “Tariff of Abominations” – a tariff that continued the streak of federal protectionism that begun with the Tariff of 1824. Jackson and Calhoun, his vice president, were elected in 1828 by an overwhelming margin. Both were popular with Democrats in the South who hoped he would ensure that tariffs remained low and that the rates of the 1828 tariff would be lowered.
When Congress passed the Tariff of 1832, another highly protective tariff with steep rates, public outrage followed in the South. The law was condemned in many circles as a sectional ploy to force southerners to alter their buying patterns to subsidize northern industry and ruin the potential for foreign trade.
Not wanting to be a public face on the policy, Calhoun’s conscience would not allow him to work with Jackson to enforce the law. He clung instead to his home country of South Carolina, where he immediately began cultivating a plan of resistance.
After resigning from the presidency, Calhoun was selected by his state to the Senate specifically so he could work to counteract the tax. Courageously, Calhoun had the political bravery and philosophical ire to oppose the tariff rather than to remain complacent. Calhoun staked the entirety of his reputation on this principle in order to “avert these calamities,” rather than to suffer through such a condition.
Calhoun articulated his protest against the federal tariff in an influential writing known as the South Carolina Exposition and Protest. He affirmed the same precepts Jefferson and Madison had 30 years earlier, writing that “the General Government is one of specific powers, and it can rightfully exercise only the powers expressly granted…all others being reserved expressly to the States, or to the people.”
Calhoun described the tariff as “unconstitutional, unequal, oppressive, and calculated to corrupt the public morals, and to destroy the liberty of the country.” Condemning the disproportionately negative affect on the South, he opined that the law had made the South “serfs of the system.”
According to Calhoun, the general government “is one of specific powers, and it can only rightfully exercise only the powers expressly granted.” Admitting that the Constitution did allow for the passage of tariffs, the writing reasoned that this could only be done for the purpose of generating revenue for the general government.
Revenue tariffs, he wrote, were by their nature “essentially different from that of imposing protective or prohibitory duties.” This power, he claimed, had been “abused by being converted into an instrument for rearing up the industry of one section of the country on the ruins of another.” Revenue and protective tariffs, Calhoun wrote, were “incompatible” – the latter being a “violation of the spirit” of the Constitution.
The exposition articulated that the radical tariff violated the United States Constitution’s revenue clause in Article I, Section 8, because the high rates deter importation at the expense of revenue collection – thereby making them constitutionally illegitimate. Calhoun argued that fundamentally protective tariffs, such as the inflammatory 1828 model, had been a “perversion” of the document. In his eyes, this enlargement of the federal government’s power was an “insidious” scheme.
Rather than suffer the tariff’s impact and acquiesce to a condition of inaction, Calhoun believed his state should fiercely admonish the law. In this, he felt South Carolina was wholly justified. “It would be impossible to deny to the States the right of deciding the infractions of their powers, and the proper remedy to be applied for their correction,” he wrote. Without such a check, Calhoun wrote that the general government “would exercise unlimited and unrestrained power” over the states.
Jackson accused the South Carolina legislature of treason, and named its perpetrators traitors. The Congress responded by passing the Force Bill, a law that would permit the federal government to invade South Carolina militarily to enforce the tariff and subdue South Carolinian resistance to the policy. Only one senator, future president John Tyler, voted against the act.
According to the president, these “deluded & designing men” carried a negative spirit of rebellion in their souls, which Jackson believed threatened the union. He condemned South Carolina, saying “woe to those nullifiers who shed the first blood.” Jackson made this allegation despite the fact that it was the federal government was preparing to invade South Carolina to enforce the tariff through the Force Bill. Thus, the federal government was the only entity considering violence as a matter of policy.
Eventually, a settlement between the federal government and South Carolina was reached in the form of the Tariff of 1833, which reduced the impact of the tariff gradually over the next ten years. Nevertheless, seeds of disdain toward coercive federal policy were implanted into the minds of those who recognized the consolidation of centralized power. South Carolina humorously nullified the Force Bill before their legislative session ended, but withdrew its previous act of nullifying the 1832 tariff.
The Nullification Crisis showed that a positive result for both parties resulted from South Carolina’s steadfast resistance to tariff enforcement. Unlike popular forecasts that are commonly made when states resist unconstitutional actions, no war occurred, no one died, and South Carolina actually continued to pay the tariff at the reduced rate.
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