Nullification Theory in the Civil War

Fighting over states' right to ignore federal laws started long before Civil War combat.
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Although settled without violence, the Nullification Crisis in the 1830s signaled a weakening bond between the states and the federal government, portending the Civil War that ultimately erupted in 1861. Nullification theory took root in American politics much earlier, however, setting the stage for the secession of the Southern states and the establishment of the Confederate States of America.

1 Defining Nullification Theory

In his resignation speech to the U.S. Senate, Mississippi Sen. Jefferson Davis said, "Nullification is a remedy which is sought to apply within the Union," further stating that it would serve to preserve the Union when a state believed the federal government had overstepped its authority. John C. Calhoun, vice president under Andrew Jackson, took inspiration from the 1798 Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions when he formulated the idea that a state could declare void, or nullify, any federal law it believed to be unconstitutional.

2 Aggressive and Offensive Taxation

In 1828, Congress passed a high tariff designed to protect the interests of American cloth makers. Incensed Southerners decried the "Tariff of Abominations" as unfairly benefitting Northern manufacturers, since the higher tax meant that England bought less of the South's cotton and that finished products were more expensive in the U.S.

3 Tempest in a Southern Tea Pot

Calhoun's theory of nullification seemed the perfect answer to Southern consternation over the tariff. Holding to the idea that a state had the right to nullify federal laws within its borders if it found the law to be unconstitutional and injurious to its interests, South Carolina passed an Ordinance of Nullification in 1832, declaring the lower tariff unenforceable in the state. President Jackson believed South Carolina's actions to be treasonous and appealed to Congress for the authority to force the collection of those taxes.

4 Resolving the Immediate Problems

In 1833, Congress passed a Force Bill, giving the president the power to use U.S. military to force South Carolina to comply with the federal law. At the same time, the legislature passed the Compromise Tariff of 1833. In response to the compromise tax bill, South Carolina repealed its nullification order but, in a show of temper, passed a bill nullifying the Force Act.

5 Nullification and the Civil War

Nullification rights continued to spark passionate debate throughout the next two decades, both over tax bills and attempts to limit the slave trade. When Abraham Lincoln won the presidency in 1860, many factions in the Southern states assumed he would end slavery and make blacks politically and social equal to whites, even though the Republican Party's campaign platform promised no interference with slavery where it already existed. South Carolina again led the charge, using nullification theory to justify its refusal to accept the results of a national election and rallying other Southern states to secede.

Pamela Martin has been writing since 1979. She has written newsletter articles and curricula-related materials. She also writes about teaching and crafts. Martin was an American Society of Newspaper Editors High School Journalism Fellow. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Teaching in elementary education from Sam Houston State University and a Master of Arts in curriculum/instruction from the University of Missouri.