New England Rediscovers the Sacred Union

While William Lloyd Garrison was learning that his love affair with British abolitionists was meaningless, American politicians had other things on their minds. The Industrial Revolution in Britain and parts of the United States—notably New England—was beginning to transform the world. To protect the new factories, Congress began passing tariff bills that shielded America’s manufacturers from competitive British products.

At first many southerners supported the tariff; they expected to industrialize too. South Carolina was especially optimistic. They had water power, and their plantations were producing cotton by the ton. But few southerners had the technical background to run a mill, and imported Yankees proved poor managers of slave labor. The cotton growers decided they could make more money by expanding their plantations. Many of the most ambitious planters headed west to bigger farms and richer soil in Alabama and Mississippi. South Carolina slid into a slow but unmistakable economic stagnation.

In 1819, the stock market had crashed and a recession stifled the American economy everywhere. By the mid-1820s, South Carolina was looking at the tariff as a burden rather than a benefit. Their hostility was deepened by a cotton surplus that triggered a sharp drop in the price paid by British and New England mills. The state began to see the tariff as a sinister policy aimed at enriching greedy Yankees and impoverishing genteel southern aristocrats.1

In 1827, this persecution complex was exacerbated by finding a Yankee, John Quincy Adams, in the White House backing a new and even steeper levy on consumer goods from Britain. President Adams was hoping to raise money for canals, highways, and other public works projects that the country needed. South Carolina’s politicians dismissed these ideas and denounced “the tariff of abominations.”

Virginia’s John Randolph, always ready to create an uproar, accused the New Englanders of building their factories with dollars pilfered from the pockets of the South. Charleston began hosting mass protest meetings where politicians wondered aloud whether there was any point in staying in a Union that was bankrupting them. The North, cried one man, veering toward a metaphor everyone instantly recognized, acted as if they were the masters and the Southerners were their humble “tributaries.”2

In Washington, DC, South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun, vice president under President Adams, paid close attention to these growls of discontent. Calhoun decided it was time to borrow a leaf from Thomas Jefferson’s play-book and resort to the ominous word, nullification. At this point Calhoun was considered a likely prospect for the presidency. Strikingly handsome, he was a superb orator and a politician who seemed adept at working with Northerners and Westerners. He had been a well-regarded secretary of war under President Monroe. But he was extremely sensitive to the growing hostility to slavery in the northern states.

Soon there was something called “the Exposition of 1828,” a treatise secretly written by the vice president and approved by the South Carolina legislature. It declared that the Constitution was a compact between the states, each of whom still retained an ineradicable sovereignty. This meant a state had the right to nullify any act of Congress if its legislature thought the law exceeded federal powers. Some politicians in Virginia and other southern states applauded this idea. Seventy-six-year-old James Madison, still very much alive in his Virginia mansion, Montpelier, said the argument was preposterous and nothing in the Constitution countenanced it. The nullifiers dismissed him as a senile has-been.3

These tensions did not diminish when Andrew Jackson defeated President Adams’s run for reelection. The ex-general had no quarrel with high tariffs. They did not bother many people in his home state, prosperous Tennessee. But the West wanted a better deal on the government’s sale of public lands. Would she get help from the South or the North? The debate swiftly became a confrontation between the two older sections.

In December 1829, a Jackson-hating Connecticut senator introduced a proposal to put a hold on selling any more western land. Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri called the idea a “scheme to injure the West and South” by keeping “pauperized” factory workers in the East. Senator Robert Y. Hayne saw an opportunity to score points for the South. The slim, handsome orator attacked the proposal as a typical example of New England’s habit of putting self-interest ahead of the nation. This charge led readily to a condemnation of the Yankees’ role in promoting ever-higher tariffs, forcing South Carolina to consider leaving the Union.

Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts rose to deplore Senator Haynes’s hostility to New England and his habit of speaking of the Union “in terms of indifference, even of disparagement.” Too many Southerners talked this way. Webster challenged Hayne to a debate on whether there was any justification for his condemnation of New England—and dared him to prove a state could legally disobey a law passed by Congress, such as a tariff.

Hayne accepted the terms of this verbal duel, and he began by attempting to prove New England’s hostility to the West. Webster replied that the claim was absurd. Tens of thousands of New Englanders had already migrated to the growing states of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. The retort was superficially effective but largely beside the point. Already the northern tiers of these states was called “the Yankee Midwest.” The settlers brought with them their New England traditions and loyalties, which included hostility to the Southerners who inhabited the lower half of these states—and to the rest of the South.

Senator Hayne replied with a speech that lasted two days. He attacked New England’s record of disloyalty to the federal government, culminating in the Hartford Convention, and defended the Calhoun view that a state’s rights transcends the authority of the Constitution. By now the small circular Senate chamber was packed with spectators. They filled the gallery and the aisles on the floor below. People sensed that the future of the nation was being debated.

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Daniel Webster rose to rescue New England from the obloquy of its secessionist flirtations. The senator had begun his political career as a combative Federalist congressman and had graduated to the Senate in 1827 under the banner of the proto-Whig National Republican Party. A large, imposing man, Webster’s craggy brow seemed to darken like an impending thunderstorm as he assailed Senator Hayne for his betrayal of Washington’s and Madison’s ideal of an indissoluble Union. Hour after hour Webster’s rhetoric engulfed the Senate. He was alternately witty, sarcastic, angry—and ultimately, solemn. He called on the Senate and the rest of the nation to dedicate America to the founders’ faith that the Union was eternal.

I have not accustomed myself to hang over the precipice of disunion, to see whether, with my short sight, I can fathom the abyss below; nor could I regard him as a safe counselor in the affairs of this government, whose thoughts should be bent mainly on considering, not how the Union may be preserved, but how tolerable might be the condition of the people when it should be broken up and destroyed.

What did these disunionists want? Webster thundered. “A land rent with civil feuds and drenched, it may be, in fraternal blood?” For him there was only one answer to such a prospect. The flag as it now soared above American soil, “honored by all the nations of the earth”; the flag without a single star or stripe “erased and polluted,” with its motto what it has always been and always should be. Not “words of delusion and folly” such as what is this all worth? Or Liberty first and Union afterwards. “No, there can only be one sentiment, dear to every American heart: Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!”

If these magnificent words had been spoken by anyone but a senator from Massachusetts, they might have made the Union as unbreakable as the biblical rock of the ages. Webster’s subsequent career would demonstrate he was deeply sincere. But in 1830, Southerners heard his speech as a hypocritical attempt to obfuscate the way New England had repeatedly ignored George Washington’s plea in his farewell address to avoid any and all political posturing that endangered the Union. On the other hand, Westerners, most of them passionate nationalists, applauded Webster. President Andrew Jackson, that quintessential Man of the West, agreed with every syllable.4

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A few months later, on Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, President Jackson was the guest of honor at a public dinner celebrating the famed Virginian, who had died four years earlier. Calhoun—now Jackson’s vice president—and some of his allies attempted to trap the president with a series of toasts that reminded everyone that Jefferson had endorsed the idea of nullification.

The plotters were confident of winning this not-so-subtle confrontation. Andrew Jackson had been born in South Carolina. His life had been molded by southern traditions. He was a rebel by instinct, with a long history of quarrels with his superiors. Perhaps most important, he was the virtual opposite of a political theorist; he had no education worth mentioning.

Finally, it was Jackson’s turn to offer a toast. He raised his glass and riveted his flinty eyes on Vice President Calhoun. “Our federal Union,” he growled. “It must be preserved!”

The vice president replied with a defiant countertoast: “The Union—next to our liberty, the most dear!”

Those words ended all possibility of John C. Calhoun serving another term as vice president. In 1832, with Martin Van Buren of New York as his running mate, Jackson won a second term on a tidal wave of votes. He also signed a new tariff bill, which lowered some of the 1828 duties but still retained high rates on textiles and other materials, such as iron, that South Carolina needed. The state’s infuriated politicians summoned a convention that declared the law null and void. No federal officer would be permitted to collect a penny on imports in Charleston after February 1, 1833.5

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The cavaliers of the Palmetto State were unaware that President Jackson was conferring almost daily with the man who had written much of the Constitution—James Madison. One of Jackson’s aides, Nicholas Trist, had been Thomas Jefferson’s secretary for the last two years of his life. (Trist had married a Jefferson granddaughter.) While at Monticello, he also became friendly with Madison. When the nullification crisis erupted, Trist asked Madison to advise President Jackson. The aged founder told Old Hickory he could and should condemn the nullifiers, and if they attempted to carry out their threat to secede from the Union, he should crush their revolt with all the force and authority of his presidential powers.

One of Jackson’s old soldier friends, General Sam Dale of Mississippi, visited the White House not long after South Carolina had announced its nullification of the tariff. The two men discussed the situation over a decanter of whiskey. “Sam,” Jackson said. “They are trying me here. But by the God in heaven, I will uphold the laws.”

General Dale said he hoped things would go right.

“They shall go right, sir!” roared Old Hickory, and smashed his fist down on the table so hard he broke one of his clay pipes.

On December 10, 1832, President Jackson issued a proclamation to the people of South Carolina, warning them that their nullification decree was an absurdity. If they tried to support it with force, it would become disunion and treason. Jackson began sending South Carolina unionists grenades and rockets for street fighting. “Nullification means insurrection” he wrote to one of the unionist leaders. “I will meet it at the threshold and have the leaders arraigned for treason. In forty days I can have within the limits of South Carolina fifty thousand men and in forty days another fifty thousand.”

Senator Robert Y. Hayne had become South Carolina’s governor. He defiantly made plans for a ten-thousand-man army and declared he would maintain the state’s sovereignty or “perish beneath its ruins.” The nullifiers called on other southern states for support. Virginia, Georgia, and Alabama replied that they abhorred nullification, but Georgia proposed a Southern convention to discuss the situation.

In Washington, Vice President Martin Van Buren and other cautious politicians urged Jackson to go slowly. “Your policy,” Old Hickory replied, “would destroy all confidence in our government at home and abroad. I expect soon to hear a civil war has commenced. If the leaders are surrounded by twelve thousand bayonets, our [federal] marshal shall be aided by twenty four thousand and arrest them in the midst thereof.”

The president grimly directed Congress to prepare a force bill that would authorize him to invade South Carolina. But Jackson was a man who had seen war and loathed its death and destruction. He warned “the citizens of my native state” that as president he could not “avoid the performance of his duty.” He also announced his approval of a congressional revision of the tariff, to lower some of the rates that were distressing South Carolina.

The two bills passed almost simultaneously. The South Carolinians repealed the nullification ordinance—and voted to nullify the force bill. The president ignored this empty gesture of defiance and accepted a precarious peace. “I thought I would have to hang some of them,” Jackson said with more than a hint of regret. He feared the next time the nullification monster reared its head, “It will be the Negro, or slavery question.”6

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