Was the South Carolina Exposition a fair argument?

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The South Carolina Exposition and Protest, and the theory of nullification that it was based on, was a significant event leading to the American Civil War. Nullification was the idea that a state within the United States had the right to “nullify” or ignore a law passed by the federal government that it deemed to be unconstitutional. This theory originated in 1798 and 1799 in reaction to the Alien and Sedition Acts and was contained in the “Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions” written by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. The law that South Carolina’s political and business leaders were so upset about was the Tariff of 1828, or what they called the Tariff of Abominations.

In their view, and the view of other southern states, this tariff significantly favored New England’s manufacturing over southern agriculture and commerce (namely cotton production and exports). The author of the South Carolina Exposition, John C. Calhoun, was at the time Vice President of the United States under John Quincy Adams and continued in this role under Andrew Jackson. Because of his role in the federal government initially Calhoun kept his authorship of this document a secret. The Exposition’s initial draft was approximately 35,000 words long and was presented to the South Carolina legislature on December 19, 1828. But at that time they took no action, waiting to see what the new presidential administration under Andrew Jackson would do.

By 1832 the new administration had not acted to change the Tariff of Abominations, and the events that followed soon came to be known as the Nullification Crisis. As a result, John Calhoun openly came out in support of nullification of the tariff and resigned as Andrew Jackson’s Vice President so that he could run for the Senate. He hoped that in this new role he could more successfully promote nullification. A new tariff, the Tariff of 1832, was passed, but this new version was still not satisfactory to South Carolina. In November of that year, the South Carolina state convention adopted an “Ordinance of Nullification” claiming that both tariffs were unconstitutional and could not be enforced within the boundaries of their state. This led to the federal government passing the Force Bill, which allowed President Jackson to prepare the military to force implementation of the law. At the same time Congress passed a Compromise Tariff of 1833. This tariff was accepted by South Carolina, and they repealed the Ordinance of Nullification in March of 1833. Military conflict was averted, but the issue of nullification remained.

At the heart of the theory of nullification is the issue of states’ rights versus the power of the federal government. The central component of the United States federal government under the Constitution is that while states do have certain rights, federal law is supreme. During the nineteenth century there were a number of attempts by states to nullify federal law, but the Supreme Court consistently ruled against the states and the concept of nullification. This issue arose again during the 1950s with states attempting to prevent desegregation, and again the Supreme Court rejected nullification of federal laws by states. So, was the South Carolina Exposition and its central idea of nullification a “fair” or more accurately sound legal argument? According to the United States Supreme Court, no, it was not.

For further reading, see:

Freehling, William W. (1965). Prelude to Civil War: The Nullification Crisis in South Carolina 1816–1836.

Niven, John (1988). John C. Calhoun and the Price of Union.