Nullification is a concept that gives a lower level of government the right to declare null and void any law that is passed by the general government. In the American context, this concept refers to the state’s ability to render null and void—or nullify—any law that is passed by the Congress and signed by the president. The debate over the validity of this concept began during the late eighteenth century and reached its climax approximately forty years preceding the U.S. Civil War.
James Madison and Thomas Jefferson laid out the theoretical and practical justification for nullification in the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions (1798). Madison and Jefferson argued that an individual state had the right to nullify laws passed by the general government that that state felt was inappropriate. When President Thomas Jefferson, a states’ rights advocate, took office in 1801, the debate subsided until 1828.
By 1828 a tariff had been passed that the southern states called the Tariff of Abominations. The agrarian South viewed the tariff as a political maneuver by the North to benefit the North’s industrialized economy. The tariff was a tax on imported manufactured goods. This increased the cost of manufactured goods, thereby protecting the North’s industry from foreign competition, while increasing the cost of production in the agrarian South. European nations retaliated against the tariff by taxing southern imports, specifically cotton, further hurting southern farmers by decreasing the demand for southern cotton.
John C. Calhoun, a politician from South Carolina, supported the nullification doctrine as a component of what he termed the “concurrent majority,” which enabled each state to have a veto over national action. At this time Calhoun was vice president of the United States under President Andrew Jackson, and put forth his idea of nullification in the South Carolina Exposition and Protest (1828). Calhoun reasoned that, unless a law was made a constitutional amendment, a state had the right to nullify a federal law. After the Tariff of 1832 was passed and Calhoun had resigned as vice president to become a senator in South Carolina, South Carolina reacted by nullifying the Tariff of 1832. President Jackson considered this action to be treasonous.
In 1833 Congress passed the revenue collection bill, known as the “force bill,” which authorized President Jackson to use force against South Carolina. Senator Henry Clay, seeking to resolve the matter without violence, offered a compromise in 1833 that would gradually reduce the tariff to the rate it had been in 1816 before the tariffs of 1828 and 1833 were passed. The South Carolina Legislature, at the passage of Clay’s bill, formally rescinded the ordinance of nullification. The result left vague the issue of states’ rights versus national rights. Not until the end of the Civil War in 1865 was the issue settled for good and the nullification debate put to rest.
John C. Calhoun, Union and Liberty: The Political Philosophy of John C. Calhoun, ed. Ross M. Lence (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1992); and William W. Freehling, Prelude to Civil War: The Nullification Controversy in South Carolina, 1816–1836 (New York: Harper & Row, 1966).