What were the economic and social causes of the Nullification Crisis?

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The economic causes of the crisis are well-known. Essentially, South Carolina planters, especially cotton planters, perceived that the passage of a series of protective tariffs was harmful to South Carolina's economy, because they raised the prices on manufactured goods that South Carolinians depended on. Additionally, the tariffs hurt British exports, which deprived British merchants of the cash they needed to import cotton from South Carolina and elsewhere. These facts also must be understood in the context of an expanding cotton South, as South Carolina's planters feared that they could no longer compete economically with planters on the new, richer soils in Alabama, Mississippi, and elsewhere.

The social causes of the crisis are more complex, and indeed contradict the traditional economic interpretation. Historians have recognized (mostly because South Carolina's politicians made it clear in their speeches) that the fundamental issue on the tariff debate which led to the Nullification Crisis was really about political power. There was a widespread perception in South Carolina that the political atmosphere in the rest of the nation was becoming anti-slavery, and that if a majority of Congress could enact a tariff that was so antithetical to planter interests, then they could also take action to harm or even end slavery.

Historian William Freehling, in his 1968 book A Prelude to Civil War, argues that these anxieties were what really underlay the crisis. "[T]he nullification impulse," Freehling says in introducing his now standard interpretation, "was to a crucial extent a revealing expression of South Carolina's morbid sensitivity to the beginnings of the antislavery campaign." As Freehling points out, the leaders among the nullification movement were lowcountry planters who, because they grew long-staple cotton and especially rice, did not share many of the economic motives for opposing the tariff. For many South Carolinians, the battle over tariffs was really a battle over slavery, and the fact that the state's politicians ultimately backed away from the threat of secession (even though they did get a lower tariff) did little to assuage the planters' anxieties. 



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