Andrew Jackson always liked to present himself as an implacable upholder of states' rights. And it was his consistent championing of the states that was one of the main reasons behind his victory in the 1828 election. Yet once he'd been sworn into office, Jackson found, like so many of his successors, just how difficult it is to square the rhetoric of states' rights with the practical business of Federal government.
A classic example of this difficulty came during the Tariff Nullification Crisis. Jackson's fellow Southerners were outraged at the application of the tariff, which they saw as having a disproportionately negative impact on the South. The President had overwhelmingly carried the South in his election victory, and not unreasonably, Southern opinion held that, with their man in office, they could count on the protection of their economic interests.
When such hopes were quickly dashed by the introduction of the tariff, a full-blown constitutional crisis developed, one that brought the United States to the very brink of civil war. In opposition to the tariff, the state of South Carolina unilaterally nullified the application of the policy within its boundaries.
Irrespective of the constitutional propriety of such an act, there can be no doubt that it represented a full-throated assertion of states' rights, the very principle that Jackson had always claimed to support. But Jackson realized that there were limits to this principle; he knew that if South Carolina could unilaterally nullify federal legislation with impunity, then other states would almost certainly follow suit, potentially leading to the break-up of the Union.
Jackson's response to the incipient rebellion was a mixture of carrot and stick. On the one hand, he prepared a military force to ensure the law's enforcement in the event that South Carolina wouldn't back down. On the other hand, he cobbled together a legislative compromise designed to meet some of his opponents' strongest objections to the tariff. Either way, Jackson was hell-bent on keeping the Union together. When push came to shove, the political and constitutional integrity of the nation came before any notion of states' rights.