Thursday, April 11, 2013

Confederate "Heritage" Month, April 11: Madison and the Nullfication Controversy

When John Calhoun and his allies in South Carolina staged their confrontation with the United States and the Jackson Administration over the tariff in 1832-33, the nullificationists pointed to the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions that James Madison and Thomas Jefferson had promoted during the Adams Administration in opposition to the repressive Alien and Sedition Acts as supporting their cause of nullification and treason.

As it turns out, James Madison himself was still around to comment on the issue in real time. In a letter to Nicholas Trist in December 1831 (based on the date at the Library of Congress site just linked, he wrote:

I cannot see the advantage of this perseverance of South Carolina in claiming the authority of the Virginia proceeding in 93-99, as asserting a right in a single state to nullify an act of the United States. Where indeed is the fairness of attempting to palm on Virginia an intention which is contradicted by such a variety of contemporary proofs: which have, at no intervening period received the lightest countenance from her: and which with one voice she now disclaims. There is the less propriety in this singular effort, since Virginia, if she could, as is implied, disown a doctrine which was her own offspring, would be a bad authority to lean on in any cause. Nor is the imprudence less than the impropriety, of an appeal from the present to a former period. as from a degenerate to a purer state of political orthodoxy: since South Carolina, to be consistent would be obliged to surrender her present nullifying notions to her own higher authority when she declined to concur and co-operate with Virginia at the period of the Alien and Sedition laws. It would be needless to dwell on the contrast of her present nullifying doctrines. [sic] with those maintained by her political champions at subsequent and not very remote dates.

Besides the external and other internal evidence the at the proceeding of Virginia occasioned by the Alien and Sedition law do not maintain the right of a single State, as a party to the Constitution, to arrest the execution of a law of the United States. it [sic] seems to have been overlooked, that in every instance in those proceeding where the ultimate right of the States to interpose rs alluded to, the plural term States, has been used: the term State as a single party being invariably avoided. And if it had been suspected that the term respective in the 3d Resolution would have been misconstrued into such a claim of an individual State or that the language of the 7th Resolution invoking the co-operation of the other States with Virginia * * * * * * [ellipsis in original] would not be a security against the error, a more explicit guard would doubtless have been introduced. But surely there is nothing strange in a concurrence and co-operation of many parties in maintaining the rights of each within itself. [emphasis in original]
That quote are taken from the version published in 1912 as Madison's Famous Original Letter Against Nullification 1832, which title obviously assumed an 1832 date for the letter. The text of a portion of the letter is also available at the Library of Congress. And it is included in The Writings of James Madison Vol. 9, Gaillar Hunt, ed. (1910), but it begins with the sixth paragraph of the 1912 edition; the two paragraphs quoted above are the second and third in the letter.

He certainly makes it clear that he did not support the nullification attempt by South Carolina, which was nominally over tariffs but was understood by Calhoun and his supporters as a trial run for nullification and secession in support of slavery. Of the major controversies that led up to the Civil War, the Nullification Crisis was the only one not explicitly about slavery.

The December 1931 letter is also an important document in interpreting the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions in their own context, with necessary allowance for the fact that here Madison was writing decades after the event.

In an earlier letter to Jared Sparks of 07/27/1831 dealing with South Carolina's nullification claims and the Constitutional arguments advanced to support them, Madison argued that "the nature of the Constitutional compact" precluded "a right in any one of the parties to renounce it at will, by giving to all an equal right to judge of its obligations; and, as the obligations are mutual, a right to enforce correlative with a right to dissolve them." He also said that is would be impossible as well as unjust to execute "the laws of the Union, particularly the laws of commerce, if even a single State be exempt from their operation." (From Writings, Vol. 9)

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