John C. Calhoun soon emerged as the leading theorist of nullification. As the South began to fall behind the rest of the country in population, Calhoun had evolved from the nationalist of 1812 into a powerful defender of southern sectionalism. Having been elected vice president in 1828, Calhoun at first remained behind the scenes, secretly drafting the Exposition and Protest in which the South Carolina legislature justified nullification. The document drew on the arguments in the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions of 1798 (discussed in Chapter 8). The national government, Calhoun insisted, had been created by an agreement among sovereign states, each of which retained the right to prevent the enforcement within its borders of acts of Congress that exceeded the powers specifically spelled out in the Constitution.

Almost from the beginning of Jackson’s first term, Calhoun’s influence in the administration waned, while Secretary of State Martin Van Buren emerged as the president’s closest adviser. One incident that helped set Jackson against Calhoun occurred a few weeks after the inauguration. Led by Calhoun’s wife, Floride, Washington society women ostracized Peggy Eaton, the wife of Jackson’s secretary of war, because she was the daughter of a Washington tavern keeper and, allegedly, a woman of “easy virtue.” Van Buren, a widower, stood by her, as did Jackson, who identified criticism of Peggy Eaton with the abuse his own wife had suffered during the campaign of 1828.

A cartoon published in 1833, at the height of the nullification controversy, shows John C. Calhoun climbing steps, including those marked “nullification,” “treason,” and “civil war,” toward the goal of “despotism.” He is flanked by James H. Hammond and Robert Y. Hayne, two of South Carolina’s political leaders. On the right, President Andrew Jackson threatens to hang them.

An 1834 print portrays the United States as a Temple of Liberty. At the center, a figure of liberty rises from the flames, holding the Bill of Rights and a staff with a liberty cap. Justice and Minerva (Roman goddess of war and wisdom) flank the temple, above which flies a banner, “The Union Must and Shall Be Preserved.”

Far weightier matters soon divided Jackson and Calhoun. Debate over nullification raged in Washington. In a memorable exchange in the Senate in January 1830, Daniel Webster responded to South Carolina senator Robert Y. Hayne, a disciple of Calhoun. The people, not the states, declared Webster, created the Constitution, making the federal government sovereign. He called nullification illegal, unconstitutional, and treasonous.

Webster’s ending was widely hailed throughout the country—“Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable.” A few weeks later, at a White House dinner, Jackson delivered a toast while fixing his gaze on Calhoun: “Our Federal Union—it must be preserved.” Calhoun’s reply came immediately: “The Union—next to our liberty most dear.” By 1831, Calhoun had publicly emerged as the leading theorist of states’ rights.

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