On the last day of his two terms as president, Andrew Jackson is reported to have said that he had but two regrets, one of which was that he hadn’t hanged John C. Calhoun. It is a great pity that he didn’t. Calhoun was far more responsible for the attempt to destroy the Union than Jefferson Davis ever was. Even though he was nearly eleven years in his grave by the time the Civil War began, he bore perhaps graver responsibility for that tragedy than any other man. He laid the powder trail that led to the cannon.
The thing to remember about Calhoun is that he was a nationalist only as long as he saw the nation’s interests as being compatible with the interests of his section, or, more specifically, his State, or, more specifically, the slave-owning class that dominated his state. As soon as those interests diverged, or whenever he thought they diverged, he had no interest whatever in preserving the Union. Thus, he was one of the pre-eminent War Hawks who got us into the nearly fatal War of 1812, as we shall see. But when Congress passed a tariff that favored Northern interests over Southern, he had no ear for arguments that it was in the national interest to protect manufacturing until it could compete with English trade on even terms. In all his long career from 1812 to 1850, he never once put the national interest above the interests of the South, nor those above the interests of South Carolina, nor those of the state in general above the interests of the slave-owning class.
The nullification crisis of 1832 was an example of Calhoun at his worst.
Years before the panic of 1837, in the 1820s, the economy of South Carolina suffered a economic downturn, and its politicians blamed the policy of high tariffs against foreign goods, which had been adopted (after the War of 1812 showed the nation’s economic vulnerability) to encourage American manufacturing by making competing European goods more expensive.
In 1832, South Carolina passed an ordinance maintaining that the federal tariffs of 1828 and 1832 were unconstitutional, hence null and void within state limits. Why unconstitutional? Because their purpose was not only to provide revenue for the federal government, but to protect domestic manufacturing interests. South Carolina had no manufacturing interests, and so received no direct benefit from high tariffs, but it had to pay higher prices for manufactured goods. This, its representatives argued, was discriminatory in effect, if not in intent, and the state would interpose its power to protect its citizens. In this, they were following Calhoun’s arguments made four years earlier. About half of the southerners in Congress had supported the tariff, but a South Carolina state convention declared that the tariffs, being unconstitutional, would not be enforced in the state after February 1, 1833. Calhoun supported the idea. He had argued that a state could veto any law it considered unconstitutional, or could secede from the Union if it saw fit, an argument rejected by no less a Southern statesman than former president James Madison, the chief architect of the constitution.
Calhoun now helped form the Nullifier Party within South Carolina.
President Jackson supported states’ rights, and sympathized with the South in the tariff debate, but he believed in the protection of the domestic manufacture of goods necessary for the military. Nor did he want to reduce the tariff until the national debt was fully paid off (which, in 1835, briefly, it was). Besides, he could see that if any state could unilaterally opt out of any federal measure it disapproved, the Union could not survive, and all his life he vigorously supported a strong union. He said that, “To say that any State may at pleasure secede from the Union is to say that the United States is not a nation,” which presages Lincoln’s later argument that the right of unilateral secession would make the Union “a rope of sand.”
After Jackson’s re-election, Congress passed a Force Bill, empowering the president to use military power to force states to obey all federal laws – and no one who knew Jackson doubted that he would use force if need be. He sent warships to Charleston harbor, and talked of hanging Calhoun.
South Carolina then nullified the Force Bill!
The situation might have gotten uglier, but for the Compromise Tariff of 1833, which let South Carolina claim victory and climb off the limb before Jackson sawed it off. Its Nullification Ordinance was repealed in the following month.
After the immediate crisis was over, Jackson wrote that “the tariff was only a pretext, and disunion and southern confederacy the real object. The next pretext will be the negro, or slavery question.” And, of course, that is exactly what happened. From then on, Southern politicians assumed that all they needed to do, to get their own way, was to threaten to secede from the Union. They almost did it in 1850, as we have seen.
Plotting to destroy the government under which you live is revolution only if it succeeds. Otherwise, it is treason. If Jackson had hanged Calhoun during the nullification crisis, perhaps the South Carolinian would have been as discredited as Aaron Burr. Perhaps Southern politics wouldn’t have been reshaped on sectional lines. Perhaps, just perhaps, we would have found a way to avoid civil war a generation later. Instead, Calhoun’s insane baleful influence continued to spread, even after his death in 1850. The issues over which the Civil War was fought – the balance of power between federal and state governments, and the existence of slavery – were difficult and perhaps could never have been solved peacefully. But Calhoun and his influence helped make peaceful, reasonable solutions impossible The Union, and the South particularly, paid dearly for one man’s monomania.
Jackson could have saved his country a lot of trouble if he had been able to nullify Calhoun.