Gentle Readers, you may have guessed from the recent run of Modern Mondays that I’ve gone off on a bit of a nullification kick. Sectional strife did not just erupt full-formed over the annexation of Texas or the Wilmot Proviso, but rather had a pedigree extending considerably farther back. At a certain point, one arrives at crises resolved in ways that don’t seem to have pushed the nation closer to war, but which rather subsided into a more latent kind of sectionalism. For example, prior to 1854 southern radicals could complain about the Missouri Compromise but few expected it overturned. The serious controversy over Missouri’s admission to the Union with slavery intact had its lingering echoes. It did not help the white Americans of the two sections learn to love one another better. But neither did it inaugurate an era of continuing and intensifying tension over slavery. Somewhere between the last crisis where we see tensions largely subside and the first where we see them continue, we draw a line and declare the Civil War era commenced.
In doing so, we must remember that the past no more divided itself into discrete blocks than the present. Rather we see trends progress continuously, if not without some acceleration, some slowing down, and reverses. We use periodization to describe, not proscribe. The present trend in these things leans toward pushing the Civil War era further and further back, though not without controversy. Thus we can better tease out the deep roots of the conflict and trace the interdependent evolution of sectional identities that facilitated it. Since South Carolina began the secession movement, twice, the state’s defiance of two tariffs seems like a promising place to look for the war’s deeper roots.
I began with William W. Freehling’s 1966 book Prelude to the Civil War: The Nullification Controversy in South Carolina 1816-1836. I knew Freehling’s work from The Road to Disunion, where he covers some of the same ground, and saw regular reference to him even in recent antebellum surveys. For an academic book to remain the standard text for a good fifty years speaks to its quality. I looked for other modern books, but found only Richard Ellis’ The Union At Risk: Jacksonian Democracy, States’ Rights, and the Nullification Crisis. Many other books discuss the controversy, but they generally do so in the course of studying something else. One finds footnotes referencing biographies of the principals, especially Jackson and Calhoun, but so far as relatively recent, dedicated works on the controversy itself Ellis and Freehling have the market cornered.
If you want to know more, which should you read? One generally does better to prefer the more recent publication, though not without exceptions. When it comes to Nullification, the exception proves the rule. If one wants to learn about the Nullification Controversy in detail and thoroughly, one should go first to Freehling. It wouldn’t hurt to read the important chapters once and then give them a thorough skim thereafter to help organize things in your mind. The Freehling of the 1960s has not yet discovered his love for especially convoluted turns of phrase and frequent nicknames, but he still writes careful, dense prose. None of that detracts from his probing inquiry, but it takes some getting used to. His biographical sketches probably tell fairly standard stories of South Carolina political careers often enough that he could have skipped several, but do a good job of fixing the diverse cast of characters in your mind. One comes away knowing who wanted what when, why they changed their minds, what tactics they chose, and informed of the critical whys and wherefores all along. To sum up Freehling’s argument in a sentence: South Carolina’s embrace of radical, novel nullification theories served a tactic to save slavery.
Ellis has almost none of that. He concerns himself almost exclusively with discussions of constitutional theory. He tells you right out that he takes theory seriously and views it as intensely important in its own right, whilst taking a few swipes at historians who inquire as to where the theories come from or why people would find them so compelling. Some of his criticism rings true, but I think overall he goes too far the other way. He deals in abstractions to the point that one wonders just why anybody cared so much. This runs a real risk of turning American history into a collection of white men politely discoursing on abstract matters with cultivated, disinterested manners. I don’t know that Ellis entirely avoided that pitfall.
Ellis’ book speaks far more about Jackson than South Carolina. He lists the Nullification Crisis third in his subtitle and in many ways it feels like an afterthought. He spills at least as much ink on the Bank of the United States and Indian Removal as the crisis. For my money, when Ellis writes about nullification he largely writes around it. He sees criticism of Jackson’s moves to suppress the nullifiers as the most interesting part of the story, rather than the thing itself. To the degree the book concerns nullification at all, Ellis argues that the nullifiers adopted a new and novel theory of states’ rights against older states’ rights theories, but their innovation had popularity elsewhere in the country. Jackson, as an exponent of old school states’ rights, overreached and overreacted in ways that generally undermined his position.
I hope the reader doesn’t take this as too damning of Ellis. His book really has a great deal going for it. He looks at the interplay between the Bank, Indian Removal, and Nullification in ways that Freehling does not. He plumbs distinctions between nullifier theories of states’ rights and more traditional varieties in a way that Freehling only references in passing. Ellis does a very good job of placing the crisis in the broader Jacksonian context. That he didn’t write quite the book I wanted, or that Freehling wrote, doesn’t constitute much of a criticism. Having multiple scholars attack a subject from different angles enriches the field. If you want to build a thoroughgoing understanding of the controversy, you should read his book after you read Freehling.
However, it now falls to me to damn Ellis. The Union at Risk has one critical shortcoming, already alluded to, that one needs to keep in mind. If you go to the index, you will find exactly one entry for slavery, referencing a single section of Ellis’ final chapter. The peculiar institution figures into several subheadings in other entries, but they almost invariably send you straight back to that short section. Most of this section downplays slavery’s significance. Ultimately, Ellis admits that slavery played the driving role in nullification. He quotes Calhoun’s admission of the fact to Virgil Maxcy. Buried in the endnotes, he confesses that he agrees with Freehling that slavery drove Nullification. He identifies the strong correlation between heavily enslaved areas and support for nullification, but then goes off the rails:
there seems to be no question but that the institution of slavery was becoming more widespread and that attitudes toward it began to harden after 1815. But the relationship of this to political developments between 1815 and 1854 is murky.
One might defend that statement for the early part of the time covered, or excuse it as the product of the 1980s lacuna in slavery historiography, but doing so would require us to neglect quite a bit of work on the later end of Ellis’ “murky” period available to him at the time of writing. I suspect that Ellis struggles here with the fact that through most of The Union at Risk, he remains critical of the nullifiers but broadly sympathetic to Jackson until Jackson declares firmly against them. This seems largely about rescuing Jackson’s traditionalist states’ rights ideas from association with nullification whilst simultaneously not delving into where those ideas also came from. The Old Republicans, especially the set around John Randolph in Virginia, had did not scruple to admit that they saw a too-powerful national government as wrong because it imperiled slavery. Daniel Howe Walker notes as much in What Hath God Wrought:
John Randolph pointed out that a protective tariff was in effect a tax on consumers. “On whom do your impost duties bear?” he demanded. The burden of these taxes on “the necessaries of life” would fall on two classes: “on poor men, and on slaveholders.” 66 Randolph had, as usual, cut to the heart of the matter. (page 83)
The strident John Randolph of Roanoke made this logic public: “If Congress possesses the power to do what is proposed in this bill,” he warned in 1824 while opposing the General Survey for internal improvements, “they may emancipate every slave in the United States.” (pages 221-222)
This points to an ideology rather less innocent of proslavery conviction than Ellis suggests and something much more in tune with John Ashcroft’s rendition of the Democracy as built, from Jefferson, on to at least implicitly shelter and preserve slavery.
Ellis’ distinction between traditionalist states’ rights and nullification theories deserves consideration apart from the connection to slavery, but even granting that we run into problems. He further denies Jackson’s and his supporters’ proslavery bona fides, casting them as latter-day Jeffersonians who viewed slavery as a necessary evil. Given both Jefferson’s own behavior and Jackson’s great enthusiasm for expanding slavery, this just doesn’t withstand scrutiny. More recent scholarship, as incisively explained by Howe, considers slavery and white supremacy a major priority of the Democracy:
One policy that the Democratic Party embraced consistently was white supremacy. The centrality of white supremacy in Democratic policymaking helps explain that party’s hostility toward Clay’s American System. Democratic suspicion of government aid to internal improvements reflected not a horror of the market revolution but a fear that such a program might threaten the institution of slavery. The danger, from the slaveholders’ point of view, was twofold. In the first place, national plans for internal improvements might be designed to wean areas in the Border States or Upper South away from slave-based agriculture toward a diversified economy in which slavery would become vulnerable to gradual emancipation. In the second place, national plans for internal improvements set a precedent for federal activity that might encourage interference with slavery— for example, by exercising the interstate commerce power over the interstate slave trade. Jacksonians welcomed transporting farm products to market, so long as it could be done without the centralized planning that raised the specter of emancipation. (pages 584-585)
This dovetails far better with that backlash against Jackson that Ellis describes than his account of constitutional abstractions isolated almost completely from the factors that drove people to adopt and defend them. More of Ellis’ work seems devoted to preserving “anything but slavery” as a motive than to the slavery he finally confesses to in his endnotes.
This all makes Ellis a contradictory, somewhat confounding read. What he does, he does well. He makes genuinely important points in the course of doing it. But when called upon the probe the reasons of historical actors, rather than just their reasoning, he leaves the history almost completely undone. You will gain from reading him, but reading him alone would leave one with a gravely incomplete understanding of the Nullification Controversy.
NB: My page numbers come from the Kindle edition of What Hath God Wrought, a book good enough to make an argument for ebooks even independent of the sufficient peril it threatens to wayward house pets, exposed toes, and small children. I’ll even forgive it the eyestrain headaches caused by reading hundreds of pages in at a time.