An older US history text, A Concise History of the American Republic (1977) by Samuel Eliot Morison, Henry Steele Commager and William Leuchtenburg recalled that it was one of two major events that secured Andrew Jackson's reputation: "Andrew Jackson's high place in history derives from the way he confronted the two great issues of his presidency: the nillification that threated the Union and the war on the Bank of the United States that arrayed the Jacksonians against the 'money power.'"
As to Jackson's Presidency, his successful sponsorship of the Indian Removal Act also counts as one of his major achievements, and certainly serves to qualify his deservedly "high place in history." The two acts that Morison et al mention greatly advanced the cause of democracy and equality; the Indian Removal Act is a blot on the history of American democracy. That Act is a different kind of embarrassment for neo-Confederates, though. It was, even more so than the Nullification Crisis, a case in which the vote split along sectional lines and was not about slavery. However, in this case the Southerners (including Jackson) were supporting a measure that overrode states rights, a irony that the opponents of the bill were more than happy to point out.
|James Madison, 4th President of the United States and opponent of secession|
But my focus here again is on the Nullification Controversy and James Madison's reaction to it, some of which I discussed in yesterday's post. Morison et al quote Madison at the end of this summary of the nullification theory elaborate by John C. Calhoun, who with this act began his career of treason to the United States:
Calhoun, once an enthusiastic nationalist, now believed that he had made a grave mistake, for protection had turned out to be an instrument of class and sectional plunder. In a document called the South Carolina Exposition, approved in 1828 by the legislature of that state, he set forth a new doctrine - nullification, though his authorship was secret. The Constitution, he asserted, was established not by the American people, but by thirteen sovereign states. Sovereign in 1787, they must still be sovereign in 1828. Since the Federal Government was merely the agent of the states, a state convention, the immediate organ of state sovereignty, could take measures to prevent the enforcement within state limits of any Act of Congress it deemed unconstitutional. Calhoun, however, recognized one constitutional authority superior to the interpretation of a single state, an interpretative federal amendment adopted by three-fourths of the states. Under the nullification doctrine, South Carolina insisted on the right to disobey the laws of the Union while claiming the privileges of the Union. Calhoun's sincerity and intelligence cannot be doubted, but as the aged Madison declared, 'For this preposterous and anarchical pretension there is not a shadow of countenance in the Constitution.' [my emphasis]In an earlier work, The Oxford History of the American People (1965), Morison had described the Exposition's Calhounian political theory this way: "Nullification was based on two postulates: the common assertion that the Federal Constitution was a compact between states, and the theory of indestructible sovereignty."
The pretext and public justification of South Carolina's act of defiance was the Tariff of 1828, which opponents described as the Tariff of Abominations.
But the underlying theme, the real basis for the nullification attempt of Calhoun's theories to justify it and otherwise defend slaveholders against the will of the democratic majority, was slavery. After Jackson had ended the crisis in early 1833 with the Force Act clearly establishing federal authority to enforce the laws in South Carolina and a compromise tariff more to South Carolina's liking, he predicted that the "next pretext" for such an attempt "will be the Negro, or slavery question."
Madison also recognized that some compromise on the tariff had to be part of the solution, though he was bitterly opposed to the nullification doctrine and South Carolina's backing of it. The tariff had been in part a political ploy, as Morison et al describe it, "It was a politicians' tariff, concerned mainly with the manufacture of a President [in the 1928 election]. Pro-Jackson congressmen had introduced a bill with higher duties on raw materials than on manufactures, hoping that New England votes would help defeat it and the onus fall on [then-President John Quincy] Adams, but the strategy misfired, to the South's chagrin." Proposing something you don't actually want passed can be a tricky business!
As Madison put it it in a letter to Henry Clay of 03/22/1832:
I fear that without alleviations separating the more moderate from the more violent opponents, very serious effects are threatened. Of these the most formidable & not the least probable [would] be a Southern Convention; the avowed object of some, and the unavowed object of others, whose views are, perhaps, still more to be dreaded. The disastrous consequences of disunion, obvious to all will no doubt be a powerful check, on its partisans; but such a Convention, characterized as it [would] be by selected talents, ardent zeal & the confidence of those represented [would] not be easily stopped in its career; especially as many of its members, tho' not carrying with them particular aspirations for the honors, &c &c presented to ambition on a new political theatre, would find them germinating in such a hotbed.(That and the other excerpts quoted here are from The Writings of James Madison Vol. 9, Gaillar Hunt, ed.; 1910.)
Henry Clay would be the sponsor of the compromise tariff that Congress would pass and Jackson sign a year later.
Madison recognized the legitimacy of the right of resistance to unjust authority and the right of revolution, of course. But he emphatically rejected the nullifiers' argument that the Tariff of 1828, their nominal cause, represented anything close to such a jutification:
The idea that a Constitution which has been so fruitful of blessings, and a Union aomitted to be the only guardian of the peace, liberty and happiness of the people of the States comprizing it should be broken up and scattered to the winds without greater than any existing causes is more painful than words can express. It is impossible that this can ever be the deliberate act of the people, if the value of the Union be calculated by the consequences of disunion. (Letter to Nicholas Trist, May 1832))In a letter to C.E. Haynes of 08/27/1832, Madison argued against Calhoun's theory on the nature of the compact among the states:
And here it must be kept in mind that in a compact like that of the U. S. as in all other compacts, each of the parties has an equal right to decide whether it has or has not been violated and made void. If one contends that it has, the others have an equal right to insist on the validitv and execution of it. ...And although South Carolina was nominally threatening to nullify federal laws while staying in the Union, Madison knew that secession was implied in the arguments:
It is true that in extreme cases of oppression justifying a resort to original rights, and in which passive obedience & non-resistence cease to be obligatory under any Government, a s1ngle State or any part of a State might rightfully cast off the yoke. What would be the condition of the Union, and the other members of it, if a single member could at will renounce its connexion and erect itself, in the midst of them, into an independent and foreign power; its geographical relations remaining the same, and all the social & political relations, with the others converted into those of aliens and of rivals, not to say enemies, pursuing separate & conflicting interests? Should the seceding State be the only channel of foreign commerce for States having no commercial ports of their own, such as that of Connecticut, N. Jersey, & North Carolina, and now particularly all the inland States, we know what might happen from such a state of things by the effects of it under the old Confederation among States bound as they were in friendly relations by that instrument [i.e., the Articles of Confederation].
I partake of the wonder that the men you name should view secession in the light mentioned. The essential difference between a free Government and Governments not free, is that the former is founded in compact, the parties to which are mutually and equally bound by it. Neither of them therefore can have a greater right to break off from the bargain, than the other or others have to hold them to it. (Letter to Nicholas Trist, 12/23/1832)
He expanded on that idea in a letter to Alexander Rives of January 1833:
The characteristic distinction between free Governments, and Governments not free is that the former are founded on compact, not between the Government and those for whom it acts, but among the parties creating the Government. Each of these being equal, neither can have more right to say that the compact has been violated and dissolved than every other has to deny the fact and to insist on the execution of the bargain. An inference from the doctrine that a single state has a right to secede at will from the rest is that the rest would have an equal right to secede from it; in other words, to turn it, against its will, out of its union with them. Such a doctrine would not, till of late, have been palatable anywhere, and nowhere less so than where it is now most contended for.These arguments Madison is making about the government compact were based in classical liberal theories of government.
Calhoun's idea of indestructible sovereignty made the novel assertion that "sovereignty" was absolute, that if a state was sovereign in its sphere of authority, that no other sovereignty could be above, including that of the federal government. Here in a letter to Sen. William Cabell Rives of 03/12/1833 who had recently given a Senate speech against it, he indicates how little such a notion had occurred to people before, and how patently ridiculous it struck him to be:
[Your speech] takes a very able and enlightening view of its subject. I wish it may have the effect of reclaiming to the doctrine & language held by all from the birth of the Constitution, & till very lately by themselves, those who now Contend that the States have never parted with an Atom of their sovereignty; and consequently that the Constitutional band which holds them together, is a mere league or partnership, without any of the characteristics of sovereignty or nationality.And in that letter he states even more clearly how obvious that secessionist tendencies are at work:
It seems strange that it should be necessary to disprove this novel and nullifying doctrine; and stranger still that those who deny it should be denounced as Innovators, heretics & Apostates.
The conduct of S. Carolina has called forth not only the question of nullification; but the more formidable one of secession. It is asked whether a State by resuming the sovereign form in which it entered the Union, may not of right withdraw from it at will. As this is a simple question whether a State, more than an individual, has a right to violate its engagements, it would seem that it might be safely left to answer itself. But the countenance given to the claim shows that it cannot be so lightly dismissed. The natural feelings which laudably attach the people composing a State, to its authority and importance, are at present too much excited by the unnatural feelings, with which they have been inspired at' their brethren of other States, not to expose them, to the danger of being misled into erroneous views of the nature of the Union and the interest they have in it. One thing at least seems to be too clear to be questioned; that whilst a State remains within the Union it cannot withdraw its citizens from the operation of the Constitution & laws of the Union. In the event of an actual secession without the Consent of the Co-States, the course to be pursued by these involves questions painful in the discussion of them. God grant that the menacing appearances, which obtruded it may not be followed by positive occurrences requiring the more painful task of deciding them!And in a draft letter from sometime in 1833, he addressed Calhoun's notion that special state conventions - like the ones that endorsed secession in 1860-61 - were a uniquely valid expression of the popular will, using the term "popular assemblages". And he also addressed the secessionists' anti-democracy attacks on government by the majority (which at this time still meant a majority of white men, and as Madison even notes in the draft, there were still property requirements for voting in many places):
You justly take alarm at the new doctrine that a majority [Government] is of all other [Government] the most oppressive. The doctrine strikes at the root of Republicanism, and if pursued into its consequences, must terminate in absolute monarchy, with a standing military force; such alone being impartial between its subjects, and alone capable of overpowering majorities as well as minorities. ...As odd as it seems now, the idea of a "standing military force" of any significant size in 1833 was considered to be in itself an anti-democratic thing.
The history of the ancient Republics, and those of a more modern date, had demonstrated the evils incident to popular assemblages, so quickly formed, so susceptible of contagious passions, so exposed to the misguidance of eloquent & ambitious leaders; and so apt to be tempted by the facility of forming interested majorities, into measures unjust and oppressive to the minor parties.
Even after the South Carolina controversy was settled, Madison continued to see the secessionist sentiment as a threat to the Constitution and democratic government. In a letter to Edward Coles of 08/29/1834, he wrote, "On the other hand what [could] more dangerous than Nullification, or more evident than the progress it continues to make, either in its original shape or in the disguises it assumes. Nullification has the effect of putting powder under the Constitution & Union, and a match in the hand of every party, to blow them up at pleasure." And he saw where the alignment of the slave states with the Calhounian doctrine could lead:
It is not probable that this offspring of the discontents of S. Carolina, will ever approach success, in a majority of the States. But a susceptibility of the contagion in the Southern States is visible; and the danger is not to be concealed that the sympathies arising from known causes, and the inculcated impression of a permanent incompatibility of interests between the South & the North, may put it in the power of popular leaders aspiring to the highest stations, and despairing of success on the Federal theatre, to unite the South, on some critical occasion, in a course that will end in creating a new theatre of great tho' inferior extent. In pursuing this course, the first and most obvious step is nullification; the next secession; & the last, a farewell separation. How near was this course being lately exemplified? and the danger of its recurrence in the same, or some other quarter, may be increased by an increase of restless aspirants, and by the increasing impracticability of retaining in the Union a large & cemented section against its will. [my emphasis]Madison was annoyed by the kind of criticisms that some opponents of slavery were delivering against the South. But he was clearly unsympathetic, to put it mildly, to the secessionists using it as an excuse. Note here that he identifies slavery as the great dividing issue:
The positive advantages of the Union would alone endear it to those embraced by it; but it ought to be still more endeared by the consequences of disunion, in the jealousies & collisions of Commerce, in the border wars, pregnant with others, and soon to be engendered by animosities between the slaveholding, and other States, in the higher toned [Governments] especially in the Executive branch ["higher toned" here had a positive connotation], in the military establishments provided [against] external danger, but convertible also into instruments of domestic usurpation, in the augmentations of expence, and the abridgment, almost to the exclusion of taxes on consumption (the least unacceptable to the people) by the facility of smuggling among communities locally related as would be the case. Add to all these the prospect of entangling alliances with foreign powers multiplying the evils of internal origin. (Letter to Daniel Drake 01/12/1835) [my emphasis]Maidson died in 1836 at the age of 85. So we can fairly say that he was very concerned about this issue up until the end of his life. In other words, he went out still fighting against the poisonous slaveowners' ideology of secession.
Tags: confederate heritage month 2013, james madison, john calhoun, nullification controversy