The Ends of Constitutionalism

John C. Calhoun

John C. Calhoun

Gentle Readers, I’ve spent the last week thinking about constitutional theories. I’ve done so before, but they happen to have returned to the news through the continuing operations of a domestic terrorist organization. I wrote about them last week, though I don’t consider it my best effort. Consider this more inspired by than specifically about the ongoing seditious conspiracy.

In Prelude to the Civil War: The Nullification Controversy in South Carolina 1819-1836, William W. Freehling remarks that a debate concerning infrastructure projects, internal improvements in the parlance of the time, “most early-nineteenth-century disputes between nationalists and sectionalists, turned into an argument over the Constitution.” Given the tremendous prestige granted to the Constitution, it only stood to reason that any contending parties would find imprimatur for whatever policies they preferred within its text. If we judged from this point alone, we would have to consider our dating badly wrong. By no means could our years begin with any other digits than one and eight, in that order. Everyone, bar a few individuals more honest and historically informed than amenable to the ever-excessive, oft-violent cult of American patriotism, stands for the Constitution. In standing for the Constitution we name ourselves red, white, and blue saints contending against traitorous sinners.

I don’t use the religious language for effect. The frame of the argument neatly recapitulates tropes very popular in the rhetorical histories of various Christianities: Once, all agreed and lived together in paradise. The nude frolic could not last. We fell from grace and lived shackled to our sins. But now we have a chance at restoration, to come around to the right and live in conformance to the grand design. This could easily be the story of Martin Luther or Joseph Smith as the story of original intent and strict construction, the story of a proslavery Constitution or an emancipationist Constitution perverted to opposing ends. We could call any version true, so long as it comported with our values. If we wanted to really separate ourselves from the crowd, we might burden ourselves with inconvenient facts as well as the airy freight of rhetoric. Even if we do, Constitutional debates ultimately come down to what we want and how we think we can best achieve it.

This doesn’t necessarily render Constitutional considerations irrelevant, but it does mean that we cannot take them in isolation. People adopt the constitutionalisms they do for what they consider good, real world reasons rather than fuzzy abstractions. That doesn’t necessarily make constitutional theory insincere, but does mean that it follows and flows from policy preferences. If we take it at face value, a practice once popular among historians as well as the lay public, then very little of American history makes much sense. We mistake states’ rights for a cause, rather than a method. We have no explanation at all for how a diehard nationalist like John C. Calhoun became his generation’s most famous anti-nationalist. Going down this road leads one to thinking that slavery had little to do with the Civil War or any of the sectional crises before it, rather than serving as their indispensable driving force.

The ex-confederates and their latter-day admirers, many of whom must know better given the ink they spill trying to defend slavery, want just that from us all. If white supremacy remains taken for granted and invisible in American history, then it becomes that much easier to prosecute today. By removing African-Americans and their interests from history, we can deny that they have one except as objects acted upon by whites. With only the most superficial knowledge of how white supremacy operated and operates, we happily consign it to the past even as we continue it in the present. We had slavery, but we ended it. We had segregation, but we ended that too. Neither has any persistent effect, either on its own or in the form of attitudes and circumstances perpetuated despite de jure achievements.

One must truly sleep through life to miss that black Americans do not do as well as whites. Even if we don’t know the statistics, the brute facts confront us every day. The color of wealth, and the power and authority it brings, remains almost entirely white. Absent a robust understanding of both how white Americans have denied black Americans advancement, we must conclude not that injustice persists but rather that something about black Americans makes them, by their nature, inferior. We can call it culture, but this pretends that black culture exists utterly apart from white culture. It transforms black Americans into Martians, strange visitors fundamentally alien and incomprehensible save in that we can comprehend the supposedly existential threat they pose to us. They thus become a thing to battle, rather than fellow people with whom we have shared a country since before we called it a country.

If you don’t believe me, then consider this musical genre. Its performers hail chiefly from one identifiable racial group, speaking about their experiences both real and idealized. Its lyrics regularly glorify crime, including violent crime. If you watch the news often enough, you know I have just described rap and hip-hop. If you turn the radio to the right station, you will soon learn that I instead described country. Neither, with the exception of the occasional musical about a founding father and Johnny Cash, regularly graces my ears but the lyrics speak for themselves.

We invented race for that purpose, of course. We must keep to our traditions, lest we admit our own responsibility. In appreciating how fundamentally we built it into our system, it would take at least a minor miracle to have kept it clear of our constitutionalisms. Plenty of Americans, then and now, don’t even try to pretend otherwise. They deem civil rights legislation unconstitutional, a point on which the Supreme Court has chosen to concur. Programs that help the poor? As poverty in America comes with black skin, we find that unconstitutional as well. In the world of disinterested constitutionalism, these things just happen. They have their consequences, but we have the poor and wrongly-colored to bear those.

No one can hold the devoted constitutionalist responsible. They must follow the rules, the same as everyone else. Those rules come down to us themselves disinterested and thus inherently fair. We should know; we made them. How could we, white with innocence, do otherwise? All through our history we have the same distinguished record of pure principle. Such abstractions cleanse anything. We had no slavery; we had property rights.

This distinction, from time to time, brought petitioners to the Congress asking compensation for slave property lost or damaged in the course of wars. Such requests provoked considerable controversy. For many white Americans, asking the government to pay for lost slaves like it paid for lost cattle asked far too much. But for others, it asked only the absolute minimum. They had their rights, you understand. It had nothing to do with slavery, in that the Constitution protected all property alike, and everything to do with it in that slave property remained slave property. On these small issues, easily forgotten and deserving of future blog posts, the Congress could produce sectional alignments typical of the late Antebellum solid decades before and in the midst of eras where we do not usually understand slavery as a particularly divisive issue. Competing constitutionalisms then squared off, but they did not square off on their own terms. Both sides had preferred ends which their constitutional theories served.

We can pretend otherwise, but doing so doesn’t just turn hated minorities into aliens. It does the same for cherished national totems, rendering them inert, uninteresting paragons from whom we insist we must learn but from whom we have likewise stripped anything worth learning. We built such statues, out of marble or imagination, for devotion rather than education.


Two Books on Nullification

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.

Prelude to the Civil War

Prelude to the Civil War

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.

he Union At Risk

The Union At Risk

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.

South Carolina’s First Nullification


John C. Calhoun

One simply can’t run a country according to the plan that the nullifiers and states rights men advocated. If a state can overrule federal law on its own say-so, then federal law loses its force. With federal law impotent, the federal government becomes irrelevant and soon dissolves. Some vestiges might remain, but as a practical matter one reduces the Union to a collection of smaller, quarreling nations. Given many states had neither the population nor the economy to manage easily on their own, they would then likely consolidate into somewhat like-minded blocs. These groups would probably not repeat the same mistakes as the previous consolidation. Some nullification proposals foresaw essentially that, most notably the idea that the United States should try having two presidents with veto power over one another. One would come from the North, the other from the South. The Southern president would thus keep the Union forever safe for slavery.

Roger Taney, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

Roger Taney, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

The criticism holds true for matters large and small, in principle. We could leave things there, but doing so would require us to ignore the realities of the past. Certainly one could not expect a nation to endure large-scale acts of nullification. If a state or seven rejected losing the presidency or the program of a victorious party in national elections, that more obviously strains the Union and puts nineteenth century democracy in doubt than if it nullifies on a smaller scale. As a practical matter, many Northern states nullified the Fugitive Slave Act. Wisconsin took the extra step of doing it outright, leading to the Taney Court ruling that states had no power to nullify federal laws in Abeleman vs. Booth. Therein, the Court made much the same argument in contemplating the assertion that a state court could interfere with and prevent the operation of federal law:

It would seem to be hardly necessary to do more than state the result to which these decisions of the State courts must inevitably lead. It is, of itself, a sufficient and conclusive answer, for no one will suppose that a Government which has now lasted nearly seventy years, enforcing its laws by its own tribunals and preserving the union of the States, could have lasted a single year, or fulfilled the high trusts committed to it, if offences against its laws could not have been punished without the consent of the State in which the culprit was found.

The rebelling states, of course, would without a trace of irony cite the practical nullification of the Fugitive Slave Act by the North as one of the injustices which drove them to rebellion. They correctly understood the tradition of states rights rhetoric: the issue, however contested, did not go our way and therefore we claim the right to declare ourselves winners. Obviously no nation could let such a thing stand and call itself democratic even by nineteenth century terms. Yet the United States did eventually let it stand. The nation did not spend vast sums and tie up the military to do as it had done to Anthony Burns a second time. Before that, it accepted nullification of a kind from South Carolina. I draw this account from Freehling’s Prelude to the Civil War: The Nullification Controversy in South Carolina 1816-1836.

Anthony Burns

Anthony Burns

South Carolina’s cotton flowed out of the nation through Charleston and a few other lowcountry ports. Those ports thus naturally had ships in and out regularly, if nothing on the volume that New York, Baltimore, Boston, or New Orleans did. Like any functioning port, Charleston saw ships from diverse places. Many of its regular visitors hailed from the North and abroad. These ships had the usual complements, including some black seamen. Those seamen could roam freely about Charleston. To Charleston’s whites, that meant that northern blacks tainted by abolitionism could speak to their slaves. Worse still, Haitian seamen could walk free and tell anybody who asked about their country’s successful slave revolt. All of this in a region of the state where enslaved blacks vastly outnumbered whites. To further complicate matters, many enslavers from Haiti had passed through Charleston when fleeing the revolution. In the 1820s, they had had direct, personal knowledge of what a real slave uprising looked like. If they missed the significance, than the fact that Denmark Vesey used Haiti as an example of what his conspiracy could achieve would have highlighted it to even the dullest wits.

Charleston hung Denmark Vesey on July 2, 1822. Before he died, he brought the black seaman “problem” further into the limelight. With the lowcountry’s enslavers anxious about revolts, feeling embattled by the recent debates over the fate of slavery in Missouri, and a fresh uprising narrowly averted, they felt they had to do something. To answer the dire menace to their lives and their property in lives, South Carolina’s enslavers passed a law that required every black sailor locked away in the town jail for the duration of his ship’s sojourn in Charleston. Thus Charleston imprisoned the free to secure the enslaved at the end of the year.

All of that worked out just fine for Charleston’s fretting whites and just terribly for its free black visitors, precisely as intended. However, it put South Carolina on the wrong side of the United States and the United Kingdom. The two nations had a treaty granting their sailors free access to one another’s ports. This treaty, declared the Constitution

shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding.

South Carolina passed a state law to the contrary. The UK protested to the Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams. Freehling says that Adams might have gotten Charleston to ignore the law for a time. By the middle of the next year, Haitian and other black seamen moved about Charleston freely once more. This did not suit Charleston’s still-anxious citizens. They arranged a mass meeting in late July, forming the South Carolina Association to supervise enforcement of all South Carolina’s laws controlling black lives. The association named standing committees to do that work, which they soon commenced.

That enforcement led in short order to a court case. Charleston’s sheriff seized a free Jamaican black named Harry Elkinson and locked him up. Elkinson protested and sought habeas corpus proceedings, which he got. Supreme Court Justice William Johnson found the seaman law in violation of treaty and therefore invalid. However, Johnson held that he couldn’t order Elkinson’s release as his power extended only to federal prisoners. The South Carolina Association, for its part, declared the state sovereign and insisted that it had not surrendered its power to suppress revolts. Any act designed toward that end rightfully fell within its power, not the capacity of the United States. The state had not yet articulated a full-blown theory of nullification as Calhoun would later invent, but in pleading its case Benjamin F. Hunt and Isaac E. Holmes laid out an important precursor. Johnson didn’t buy it and laid out a strong refutation in his opinion:

Where is this to land us? Is it not asserting the right in each state to throw off the federal Constitution at its will and pleasure?

John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams

Johnson’s opinion provoked a firestorm in South Carolina. If the state could not pass laws to govern its slaves and keep them in slavery, then how could it retain slavery at all? All Haiti’s alleged woes came back to a distant government meddling with slavery. Now they received the same at the imperious hands of a Supreme Court justice. The state ignored the decision and continued jailing sailors. John Quincy Adams kept getting protests from the United Kingdom. He reached out to the Attorney General, William Wirt, for an opinion on the law. Wirt came down firmly against it. In July of 1823, Adams forwarded Wirt’s argument and the protests to South Carolina, asking the legislature to fix the problem.

Though South Carolina’s legislature could not settle on what tone to take, they agreed on the substance. The Senate held that “self preservation”

will never by this state, be renounced, compromised, controlled, or participated with any power whatever.

The House affirmed

The measures directed towards colored persons brought within the territory of this state, are simply part of the general system of domestic police, defensible as such, and absolutely necessary to ensure the safety of the citizens.

In other words, John Quincy Adams could best repose Wirt’s opinion and the British protests in some area perhaps well-suited to the cultivation of mushrooms but otherwise ill-disposed to agriculture. The state acted accordingly, continuing to imprison sailors. Washington and London could protest all they like, but South Carolina did as it willed. London could not perhaps force the issue short of a war. Washington chose not to and let the nullification stand.

Here, for the first time, the state grappled with the issues of the later Nullification Crisis. South Carolina cited the same reserved power of the states to nullify a treaty in the name of internal security that it would later call upon to nullify a federal law. In both cases, its constitutional thinkers discovered this power to save slavery. Victory in the first instance spurred South Carolina onward. If nullification worked once, it could work again.

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.

A Few Good Antebellum Political Surveys

Gentle Readers, I aim for transparency here. Where possible, I link you through to the primary sources I use. You can go and read them yourselves to see if I judge them fairly or not. I also try to quote generously so you have fullest context. There’s no reason anybody can’t just dive right into the primary sources and get history from there, but I also find secondary works indispensable. A good secondary source will not just give a narrative of events, and some don’t really do narratives as such, but also a generous helping of footnotes or endnotes to plumb for further reading. I have discovered most of the primary sources I use through these notes and hunting around the internet. A lucky search can land you free copies of even paywalled journal articles from recent decades that some kind professor put up for students’ convenience. But I advise getting some grounding in the secondary literature before diving in. This way you can learn the cast of characters, the major movements, and important background concerns that a primary source may simply assume familiarity with.

You can go to almost any bookstore and find a plethora of Civil War books, but the antebellum gets rather less coverage. So today I’d like to recommend some good survey texts, all of which I’ve used in one way or another in the course of writing. I know others exist, but I can only speak to those I have read. I have also restricted my list to books presently in print and present them in rough order of readability and friendliness to a layperson.

The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War 1848-1861 by David Potter.

A classic of the field, Potter’s work shows its age in some places. His dislike for abolitionist rhetoric shows through more than once. In some places, he sounds very much like a grumpy white conservative in the Civil Rights Era. In keeping with common usage at the time, he refers to black Americans almost exclusively as Negroes. Potter has a very old school approach to history with a strong focus on political actors, which I share to some degree, but the nuts and bolts narrative communicates very well just what happened when and who did it. Potter covers the whole era in good detail for such a short work, including valuable insights about the nature of state and national loyalties and the connection between antislavery politics and nativism. Furthermore, he writes well and with a minimum of jargon. If you read only one of these books, read Potter.

Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859 by Elizabeth Varon

Varon’s work only came out in 2008. She writes in a very modern, approachable voice. Don’t let her introductory words on schools of historiography and the rhetoric of disunion put you off. The opening gives the impression that one has in hand a history of ideas about disunion. While that remains a theme of the book, Varon devotes most of her attention to a general narrative. Between the greater sweep and changes in historical fashion, she spends much less time on detailed analysis of policy evolution than Potter does. However, she integrates intellectual, political, and even gender history into the narrative to a far greater degree. She and Potter will both tell you what happened and why, but Varon looks further under the hood. If gender history doesn’t sound like it has much to do with politics, then Varon’s work will prove otherwise. She has a keen eye for the use of gendered language in period sources, both by women seeking to legitimate their political involvement in antislavery causes and the counters by proslavery writers that they emasculated antislavery men. If you ever wonder what social history in its various modes has to do with more traditional approaches, reading Varon will tell you.

The Road to Disunion: Secessionists at Bay 1776-1854 and Secessionists Triumphant: 1854-1861 by William W. Freehling

Recommending a two volume work takes a bit of cheek, I know. Bear with me. Freehling’s survey of Southern politics from independence until secession does not always make for the most engaging read. Freehling can write very well, but can also turn convoluted and lose you in a forest of his personal slang. If that doesn’t do it, then the cast of characters might. Both of these criticisms apply less to the second volume than the first. The first also has slave dialog written in eye dialect, which strikes me as on the edge of good taste even by the standards of 1990.

His forward to the second volume makes it clear that Freehling understands the major issues with his first and sought to remedy them. He succeeded with the dialect and uses fewer nicknames, but I still had several points where I had to hit the index or look elsewhere to help me keep the players straight. If you stick it out with Freehling, he will introduce you to a colorful cast of characters and the ways their personal lives informed their politics. He writes a great biographical sketch. Some reviewers think he goes too far in this, reducing everything to individual eccentricities, but to my reading he generally keeps a broader perspective. That perspective comes deeply informed by social history, including many insights into the minds of slaveholders and the ways in which their authoritarian habits at home influenced both sectional and national politics. The first volume, for all its problematic writing, earns its keep in the introductory chapters alone. There Freehling gives a tour of the antebellum South right down to the number of times you have to change trains.

I understand that Freehling’s explanation of Upper South secession does not meet with universal acceptance; I don’t know that he entirely convinced me with it. However, his running argument that the fear of dissent within the white South informed a great deal of sectional politics bears consideration. It doesn’t explain the entire South or hold true to the same degree at all times, but he convinced me that we should take it seriously as a factor in proslavery thought and action. We have far too an easy a time imagining the white South as monolithic. The fear of white dissent arose out of tensions within Southern society, so attention to it as a theme helps explain just why proslavery radicals both became extreme and gained followers as time went on. Freehling confines most of his writing directed at fellow professionals to the endnotes, but they make for informative reading in themselves and include at least one moment where he graciously admits to a flaw in his own work.