Digital History
Nullification and the Bank War: John C. Calhoun in the Connecticut Herald
Digital History ID 354



During Jackson's presidency, tariff and banking policies dominated national politics. Compared to the issues that dominated British politics during the same years--slave emancipation, factory regulation, and assistance to the poor--the issues Americans fought over might seem less important. Nevertheless, vital interests were at stake, relating to such fateful questions as equality of opportunity, the balance of sectional power, and the proper role of government in the economy.

In 1828, before Jackson's election, a new law, which became known as the Tariff of Abominations, raised tariffs as high as 50 percent of the price of European goods. The tariff, Southerners objected, was essential a tax on their region to assist northern manufacturers. In an unsigned essay, Vice President John C. Calhoun argued that a single state might overrule or "nullify" a federal law within its own territory, until three quarters of the states had upheld the law as constitutional. South Carolina decided not to implement the doctrine of nullification, but to wait and see what attitude the next president would adopt toward the tariff.

Jackson revealed his position at a Jefferson Day dinner in April 1830. Fixing his eyes on Vice President Calhoun, the President expressed his sentiments with this 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."

An article in a Connecticut newspaper presents Calhoun's views on the tariff question.


Mr. Calhoun's Sentiments

It would be in vain to conceal that it [the tariff] has divided the country into two great geographical divisions, and arrayed them against each other, in opinion at least, if not interests also, on some of the most vital of political subjects; on its finance, its commerce, and its industry; subjects calculated above all others...[to place] the sections in question in deep and dangerous conflict.... If there be any point to which the...weaker of the two sections is unanimous, it is that its prosperity depends, in a great measure, on free trade, light taxes, economical and as far as possible, equal disbursements of the public revenue, and an unshackled industry, elevating them to pursue whatever may appear most advantageous to their interests....

The stronger [states], in order to maintain their superiority, giving a construction to the instrument [the Constitution] which the other believes would convert the General Government into a consolidated, irresponsible government, with the total destruction of liberty; and the weaker, seeing no hope of relief from such assumption of powers, turning its eye to the reserved sovereignty of the States, as the only refuge from oppression....

We are fast approaching a period very novel in the history of nations, and bearing directly and powerfully on the point under consideration--the final payment of a long standing funded debt... When it arrives, the Government would find itself in possession of a surplus revenue of 10,000,000 or 12,000,000 of dollars, if not previously disposed of....

The honest and obvious course is, to prevent the accumulation of the surplus in the treasury, by a timely and judicious reduction of the imposts; and thereby leave the money in the pockets of those who made it, and from whom it cannot be honestly nor constitutionally taken unless required by the fair and legitimate wants of the Government....

Every duty imposed for the purpose of protection, is not only unequal, but also unconstitutional.

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