Digital History

Jacksonian Democracy

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Digital History ID 3546



Bitter sectional disputes arose during Jackson’s presidency over public lands and the tariff. In 1820, to promote the establishment of farms, Congress encouraged the rapid sale of public land by reducing the minimum land purchase from 160 to just 80 acres at a price of $1.25 per acre.

Some groups favored even easier terms for land sales. Squatters, for example, who violated federal laws that forbade settlement prior to the completion of public surveys, pressured Congress to adopt preemption acts that would permit them to buy the land they occupied at the minimum price of $1.25 when it came up for sale. Urban workingmen--agitating under the slogan “Vote Yourself a Farm”--demanded free homesteads for any American who would settle the public domain. Transportation companies, which built roads, canals, and later railroads, called for grants of public land to help fund their projects.

In Congress, two proposals--“distribution” and “graduation”--competed for support. Under the distribution proposal, which was identified with Henry Clay, Congress would distribute the proceeds from the sale of public lands to the states, which would use it to finance transportation improvements. Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri offered an alternative proposal, graduation. He proposed that Congress gradually reduce the price of unsold government land and finally freely give away unpurchased land.

At the end of 1829, a Connecticut senator proposed a cessation of public land sales. This transformed the debate over public lands into a sectional battle over the nature of the union. Senator Benton denounced the proposal as a brazen attempt by manufacturers to keep laborers from settling the West, fearing that westward migration would reduce the size of the urban workforce and therefore raise their wage costs.

Benton’s speech prompted Robert Y. Hayne, a supporter of John C. Calhoun, to propose an alliance of southern and western interests based on a low tariff and cheap land. Affirming the principle of nullification, he called on the two sections to unite against attempts by the Northeast to strengthen the powers of the federal government.

Daniel Webster of Massachusetts answered Hayne in one of the most famous speeches in American history. The United States, Webster proclaimed, was not simply a compact of the states. It was a creation of the people, who had invested the Constitution and the national government with ultimate sovereignty. If a state disagreed with an action of the federal government, it had a right to sue in federal court or seek to amend the Constitution, but it had no right to nullify a federal law. That would inevitably lead to anarchy and civil war. It was delusion and folly to think that Americans could have “Liberty first and Union afterwards,” Webster declared. “Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable.”

Jackson revealed his position on the questions of states’ rights and nullification at a Jefferson Day dinner on April 13, 1830. Fixing his eyes on Vice President John C. Calhoun, Jackson expressed his sentiments with the toast: “Our Union: It must be preserved.” Calhoun responded to Jackson’s challenge and offered the next toast: “The Union, next to our liberty, most dear. May we always remember that it can only be preserved by distributing equally the benefits and burdens of the Union.”

Relations between Jackson and Calhoun had grown increasingly strained. Jackson had learned that when Calhoun was secretary of war under Monroe he had called for Jackson’s court-martial for his conduct during the military occupation of Florida in 1818. Jackson was also angry because Mrs. Calhoun had snubbed the wife of Secretary of War John H. Eaton, because Mrs. Eaton was the twice-married daughter of a tavernkeeper. Because Jackson’s own late wife Rachel had been snubbed by society (partly because she smoked a pipe, partly because she had unknowingly married Jackson before a divorce from her first husband was final), the president had empathy for young Peggy Eaton. In 1831, Jackson reorganized his cabinet and forced Calhoun’s supporters out. The next year, Calhoun became the first vice president to resign his office, when he became a senator from South Carolina.

In 1832, in an effort to conciliate the South, Jackson proposed a lower tariff. Revenue from the existing tariff (together with the sale of public lands) was so high that the federal debt was quickly being paid off; in fact on January 1, 1835, the United States Treasury had a balance of $440,000, not a penny of which was owed to anyone--the only time in U.S. history when the government was completely free of debt. The new tariff adopted in 1832 was somewhat lower than the Tariff of 1828 but still maintained the principle of protection.

In protest, South Carolina’s fiery “states’ righters” declared both the Tariff of 1832 and the Tariff of 1828 null and void. To defend nullification, the state legislature voted to raise an army.

Jackson responded by declaring nullification illegal and then asked Congress to empower him to use force to execute federal law. Congress promptly enacted a Force Act. Privately, Jackson threatened to “hang every leader...of that infatuated people, sir, by martial law, irrespective of his name, or political or social position.” He also dispatched a fleet of eight ships and a shipment of 5,000 muskets to Fort Pinckney, a federal installation in Charleston harbor.

In Congress, Henry Clay, the “great compromiser” who had engineered the Missouri Compromise of 1820, worked feverishly to reduce South Carolina’s sense of grievance. “He who loves the Union must desire to see this agitating question brought to a termination,” he said. In less than a month, he persuaded Congress to enact a compromise tariff with lower levels of protection. South Carolinians backed down, rescinding the ordinance nullifying the federal tariff. As a final gesture of defiance, however, the state adopted an ordinance nullifying the Force Act.

In 1830 and 1831 South Carolina stood alone. No other southern state yet shared South Carolina’s fear of federal power or its militant desire to assert the doctrine of states’ rights. South Carolina’s anxiety had many causes. By 1831 declining cotton prices and growing concern about the future of slavery had turned the state from a staunch supporter of economic nationalism into the nation’s most aggressive advocate of states’ rights. Increasingly, economic grievances fused with concerns over slavery. In 1832, the Palmetto State was one of just two states (the other was Mississippi) the majority of whose population was made up of slaves. By that year events throughout the hemisphere made South Carolinians desperately uneasy about the future of slavery. In 1831 and 1832 militant abolitionism had erupted in the North, slave insurrections had occurred in Southampton County, Virginia, and Jamaica, and Britain was moving to emancipate all slaves in the British Caribbean.

By using the federal tariff as the focus of their grievances, South Carolinians found an ideal way of debating the question of state sovereignty without debating the morality of slavery. Following the Missouri Compromise debates, a slave insurrection led by Denmark Vesey had been uncovered in Charleston in 1822. By 1832 South Carolinians did not want to stage debates in Congress that might bring the explosive slavery issue to the fore and possibly incite another slave revolt.

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