The Nullification Crisis and Slavery

Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson

Once upon a time, South Carolina defied the national government. It declared her rights as a state and struck down a federal law, daring Andrew Jackson to come down and make something of it. The state even tried to raise an army to meet the one Jackson intended to send. Most of the Confederacy’s latter-day boosters don’t know about the affair. Now and then, however, one does find someone aware of history before April of 1861. They will trot out the story of the Nullification Crisis as proof positive that the South (even though only the dominant faction in South Carolina went all-in with nullification) had grievances with the North unrelated to slavery, usually with immediate reference to the tariff.

I don’t propose here to dissect the tariff issue in detail. Others, notably Craig Swain and Andy Hall, have done a good job of that and I don’t yet feel competent to add to it. But I have made my way through William W. Freehling’s Prelude to the Civil War: The Nullification Controversy in South Carolina 1816-1836. I have not yet read the other modern treatment of the event, Richard Ellis’ The Union At Risk: Jacksonian Democracy, States’ Rights, and the Nullification Crisis. I have, however, learned that Ellis agrees with Freehling on the central point that even back in the 1830s, South Carolina launched a fleeting rebellion to save slavery. Both treatments thus depart from prior historians who insisted that in Nullification times, South Carolina had a cause pure and divorced from slavery. My own high school history class followed the older school, to the point where in younger and more ignorant times I once used the argument from Nullification myself.

The intricacies of constitutional theory invented in the late 1820s to justify nullification, a revolutionary step in itself, could probably make for a dozen or more posts. Freehling devotes his longest and most difficult chapter to them. It makes for demanding reading even if one has a strong interest in the subject. The chief primary source, John C. Calhoun’s then-anonymous South Carolina Exposition and Protest (PDF), doesn’t help matters much as the South Carolina legislature did some heavy revising of Calhoun’s text to incorporate multiple different theories of nullification. One ends up with a document somewhat at odds with itself. I may dig into all of that in the future, but today I have a more practical approach in mind.

The argument goes that South Carolina, which the arguer often conflates with the entire South, opposed a high tariff. Sure enough, the United States passed a very high tariff in 1828. Southerners did protest. South Carolina’s congressmen voted through those rates, so one might at once dismiss them as hypocritical. But on the contrary, South Carolina’s representatives voted as they did intending to destroy the bill. They ensured that it would include duties injurious to manufacturers, with Freehling listing high rates on raw wool and molasses in particular as aimed at northern industry. This would, they hoped, separate those manufacturers from the others and turn enough votes to defeat the whole bill. South Carolina bet wrong, finding that enough northerners voted for lower rates on the targeted goods to render the bill acceptable, if imperfect, to the manufacturers that they hoped to turn.

George McDuffie (D-SC)

George McDuffie (D-SC)

The argument continues, tactical blunders aside, that Southerners understood the tariff as picking their pockets to subsidize the development of the North. It didn’t clearly do so, as Crag and Andy show, but they certainly believed that. The popular argument of the time, articulated by George McDuffie on the floor of the House, held that the tariff demanded Southerners give away the proceeds of forty bales of cotton to the taxman out of every hundred they grew.

Here we hit on the central difficulty of taking anti-tariff politics independent from slavery: the enslavers didn’t grow that cotton. Their slaves did. South Carolina’s upcountry, more so than other states, felt the pinch of the depression after the War of 1812. A combination of poor access to credit, even by early nineteenth century American standards, and overextension that came back to haunt the upcountry cotton magnates. They had a great deal of debt taken on in an era of high cotton prices which they had to repay in a time of lower prices. But their objection boils down to the fact that the tariff would cut into the profits they stole from their enslaved labor force. How could anyone understand this as a cause independent from slavery, short of simply not reading or not thinking about it at any length, I don’t know. Rather we have here a clear, specific grievance that arises from and depends upon slavery. Maybe a farmer in Illinois or Maine could have a tariff complaint untainted by human bondage, but not the cotton planters in the South’s most enslaved state. A commercial grievance did not necessarily make for a slavery grievance, but in South Carolina one had precious little commerce that didn’t either arise from or directly serve slavery.

One could argue, if rather selectively, that South Carolinians did not understand the tariff issue as deeply connected to slavery, or at least to proslavery politics. They had a straightforward financial crunch they wanted out of and saw the tariff making it worse, even if their business involved stealing lives and labor. Here too we soon find ourselves confounded by facts. In this case, however, we need to understand a bit more about the South Carolina economy in the early nineteenth century.

Most everyone probably remembers that one could only profitably grow cotton, even with slave labor you could torture into higher yields, along the coast and on the Sea Islands. There enslavers grew long-staple cotton. There, in the swampy lowcountry, South Carolina got its start. In addition to cotton, Carolina enslavers collected the fruit of slave labor on massive rice plantations. Rice required swampy land to grow, something in short supply in most of the upcountry. then Eli Whitney changed the world with his cotton gin, making short-staple cotton a profitable crop in the upcountry and across the Lower South. This turned the inland South from a land of timber stands and wilderness into the richest section of the country. The expansion of short-staple cotton naturally began in South Carolina.

The two cotton fibers, however easily confused, supplied different markets. Long-staple cotton went into luxury goods like lace. Short-staple cotton went into most everything else. Advances in processing made it look briefly like upcountry cotton might force sea island strains out of the market, but improvements in production had mitigated against that and made the years immediately before Nullification relatively comfortable and prosperous for lowcountry enslavers whether they grew rice or luxury cotton. One would not expect them to lead an antitariff crusade in such an environment. In that role, we would expect the upcountry men feeling the squeeze. Yet within South Carolina most of the leading nullifiers hailed from the lowcountry. Clearly they had more than the bottom line on their minds.

The lowcountry’s great fear came in the horrifying specter of debating slavery. The nation’s tiny antislavery movement had sent its first petitions to Congress and the lowcountry enslavers, vastly outnumbered by their human property, believed that discussion of slavery had reached the slaves who took part in Denmark Vesey’s conspiracy. If they did nothing to stop discussion, then their slaves might rise up and murder them in their beds. They had already taken steps in that direction through various vigilance measures in and around Charleston, but a series of fires and rumors of other conspiracies kept them in a state of keen paranoia. Thus they felt they must silence slavery debate forever, for their own wealth and safety and decided they could best manage that by declaring Congress had no power over their domestic institution. Through social connections and shared investment in slave property, they spread their ideas into the upcountry.

Why not just say they set out to defend slavery? In the early 1830s, endorsement of slavery qua slavery lacked the cachet it would later have. A gentleman should hope that at some indeterminate date in the future, slavery would magically end. Until then, he just had to make do with the terrible burden of a fortune beaten, raped, and stolen from the bodies of black Americans. In this way, enslaving constituted a necessary evil. Arguments for the positive good of slavery, though in development, had yet to sweep even South Carolina.

Allow me to close with some words from the nullifiers themselves on the nature of their crusade. Freehling quotes the May 12, 1830, Winyaw Intelligencer:

It is not, it ought to be understood, that the Tariff is only one of the subjects of complaint at the South. the Internal Improvement, or general bribery system, and the interference with our domestic policy-most especially the latter-are things which … will, if necessary, be met with something more than words.

Looking at the justification for internal improvements in the Constitution’s General Welfare Clause, Robert Turnbull argued

these words “general welfare” are becoming every day more and more important to the folks, who are now so peaceably raising their cotton and rice, between the Little Pedee and the Savannah. The question, it must be recollected, is not simply, whether we are to have a foreign commerce. It is not whether we are to have splendid national works, in which we have no interest, executed chiefly at our cost. … It is not whether we are to be taxed without end. … But the still more interesting question is, whether the institutions of our forefathers … are to be preserved … free from the rude hands of innovators and enthusiasts, and from the molestation or interference of any legislative power on earth but our own? Or whether, like the weak, the dependent, and the unfortunate colonists of the West-Indies, we are to drag on a miserable state of political existence, constantly vibrating between our hopes and our fears, as to what a Congress may do towards us, without any accurate knowledge of our probable fate, and without a hope of successful resistance.

Thompson Player, an upcountry man, agreed that the tariff

is only preparatory to ulterior movements, destined by fanatics and abolitionists to subvert the institutions and established policy of the Southern country, to gratify their capricious and pretended charities.

Robert Barnwell held that

there are some changes in the very forms of our domestic policy, to which they could scarcely persuade us quietly to submit. And there are no changes, however vital and subversive of our most absolute rights, which fanaticism and misguided philanthropy would not attempt.

William Preston said it more bluntly still:

the slave question will be the real issue-All others will be absorbed into it. The hypocrisy of the north & the fears of the South will combine to bring us to the same result, and will Louisiana cling to her sugar and give up her negroes?

All quotes from Freehling.

John C. Calhoun

John C. Calhoun

I could go on. I may still in the future. But I can think of no better spokesman for the nullifiers than their leading ideologist, a fixture of Carolina politics and figure on the national stage for decades, none other than John C. Calhoun. In September of 1830, Calhoun wrote to Virgil Maxcy:

I consider the tariff act as the occasion, rather than the real cause of the present unhappy state of things. The truth can no longer be disguised, that the pecular domestick institution of the Southern States and the consequent direction which that and her soil and climate have given to her industry, has placed them in regard to taxation and appropriations in the opposite relation to the majority of the Union, against the danger of which, if there be no protective power in the reserved rights of the states they must in the end be forced to rebel, or, submit it to have their paramount interests sacrificed, their domestick institutions subordinated by Colonization and other schemes, and themselves and children reduced to wretchedness. Thus situated, the denial of the right of the State to interpose constitutionally in the last resort, more alarms the thinking, than all the other causes; and however strange it may appear, the more universally the state is condemned, and her right denied, the more resolute she is to assert her constitutional powers lest the neglect to assert should be considered a practical abandonment of them, under such circumstances.

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