Today, of course, is the 242nd anniversary of the birth of Andrew Jackson, combative and controversial seventh President of the United States.
Jackson’s legacy is viewed with greater ambivalence today than it was even just a few decades ago. His adamant belief in slavery and white supremacy, and genocidal policies toward native Indian peoples, along with his deleterious economic policies, have seriously tainted his traditional image as defender of the common man and proponent of democratization. In a later post, we’ll look at Sean Wilentz’s Andrew Jackson, one of the 27 biographies in the American Presidents series of Henry Holt and Company recently added to the library’s shelves. But before we do so:
Daniel Howe’s superlative What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 is one of the finest volumes in the Oxford History of the United States series. In his chapter on “Battles Over Sovereignty,” Howe assesses “the most serious constitutional crisis faced by the American republic between the adoption of the Constitution and the Civil War” – the Nullification Crisis – and concludes that “Jackson’s response to the nullification crisis stands as his finest hour”:
Andrew Jackson and the Nullification Crisis
“On November 24, 1832, South Carolina’s Nullification Convention passed an ordinance declaring that ‘it shall not be lawful’ after February 1, 1833, ‘to enforce payment of duties imposed by the said acts within the limits of this state.’ The deadline was later extended; its purpose was to provide time for Congress to repeal the protective features in the tariff under this new ultimatum. The ordinance concluded with a threat to secede if the federal government attempted to coerce the state. Carrying out the mandate of the ordinance, South Carolina’s state legislators commenced preparations for resistance to federal authority, including raising twenty-five thousand volunteer militiamen, though they expected to avoid armed conflict. They summoned Robert Hayne back from Washington to become governor of the state and elected [John C.] Calhoun to replace him in the Senate, showing that (despite the threat of secession) the most extreme Radicals would not be in charge. Accordingly, Calhoun resigned his lame duck vice presidency on December 28, 1832, and took his seat on the Senate floor.
“The nullifiers felt encouraged by Jackson’s support for South Carolina’s Negro Seamen Law and for the Georgians in their defiance of the Cherokees’ treaty rights, both of which might well be considered forms of nullification. But they were wrong to think he would support them this time. Jackson was the last person to back away from a confrontation, and he took nullification as a patriotic and personal challenge from a man he had already come to distrust and loathe. The president regarded the nullification movement the same way he did the national bank, as a conspiracy against republican liberty prompted and led by a demagogue’s ambition. Though he and Calhoun were both Scots-Irish cotton planters born in South Carolina, and both considered themselves heirs of Jeffersonian Republicanism, they actually differed significantly in temperament and outlook. Calhoun represented a mature slaveholding aristocracy and conceived himself its philosopher-statesman. Jackson thought and spoke as an outsider to aristocracy. He typified the slaveholding man-on-the-make made good, an old soldier rather than a philosopher. Like Calhoun he was preoccupied with sovereignty, but to him it represented not a theory but a matter of deeply felt personal authority. As commander in chief, Old Hickory would not tolerate mutiny. Calhoun and Jackson shared an old-fashioned concept of manly honor that required vindication at any cost. The most serious constitutional crisis faced by the American republic between the adoption of the Constitution and the Civil War was also a showdown between two resolute individual men.
“Jackson’s response to the nullification crisis stands as his finest hour. He combined firmness with conciliation. The firmness appeared unmistakably in his historic presidential proclamation on December 10. Nullification, the president told the people of South Carolina, was ‘in direct violation of their duty as citizens of the united States’ and ‘subversive of its Constitution.’ In Jackson’s straightforward logic, nullification was tantamount to secession. The president must execute the law; resistance to such execution would have to forcible. Calhoun’s arguments for peaceful nullification were specious, Jackson declared. ‘Do not be deceived by names Disunion by armed force is treason.’
“The proclamation drew upon the legal acumen of Secretary of State Edward Livingston, who had faced the foe with Jackson eighteen years before at New Orleans. Besides exposing the impracticality of nullification, it defended the constitutionality of protective tariffs and refuted Calhoun’s theory that states retained complete sovereignty within the Union. To many contemporaries, including the dying John Randolph, it seemed Jackson had forsaken the Old Republican faith and endorsed the nationalism of Daniel Webster and John Marshall. Back in 1830, as senator from Louisiana, Livingston had endorsed a synthesis of nationalism and state rights based on a theory of divided sovereignty, shared by both state and national authority; this was the standard doctrine in the Democratic Party and would remain so for many years to come. But in December 1832, Jackson insisted that his proclamation endorse the unqualified principle of national sovereignty.
“In the face of South Carolina’s challenge, Jackson responded with both toughness and responsibility. The commander in chief reinforced the garrisons of Fort Moultrie and Castle Pinckney in Charleston harbor and dispatched two armed revenue cutters to the scene. People both within and without South Carolina started to fear civil war. Eight thousand armed South Carolina Unionists enrolled, ready to answer a presidential call to oppose the state militia. The president ordered General Winfield Scott to prepare for military operations, but like Lincoln a generation later he cautioned that if violence broke out, the federal forces must not be the aggressors. To deter the nullifiers from attacking the Unionists in their midst, Jackson warned a South Carolina congressman that ‘if one drop of blood be shed there in defiance of the laws of the United States, I will hang the first man of them I can get my hands on to the first tree I can find.’ When Robert Hayne ventured, ‘I don’t believe he would really hang anybody, do you?’ Thomas Hart Benton replied, ‘Few people have believed he would hang Arbuthnot and shoot Ambrister . . . I tell you, Hayne, when Jackson begins to talk about hanging, they can begin to look out for ropes!’ In January 1833, the president asked Congress for power to deal with the emergency, notably by shifting the collection point for customs duties to offshore federal ships and forts, beyond the range of the nullifiers’ control. Angry Carolinians dubbed it ‘the Force Bill,’ thought the measure actually rendered an armed clash between state and federal authorities less likely. At the same time Representative Gulian C. Verplanck of New York, a Democratic free-trader, introduced a drastic tariff reduction backed by the administration, which would immediately cut duties in half. Jackson wanted to make sure of the loyalty of the rest of the cotton South, and on the tariff issue he was willing to compromise.
“The really critical issue of the situation would be the response of the other southern states to south Carolina’s initiative. Only with their support could a single state make nullification a viable precedent. In the end, this support did not come. Not even Mississippi and Louisiana, where the percentage of slaves in the population was almost as high as in South Carolina, came to their sister state’s aid, for neither shared her attitude toward the Tariff of 1832. Enjoying newly cultivated, rich soil, southwestern cotton-growers did not feel as hard pressed as those in South Carolina, while Louisiana sugar-growers actually favored protectionism. So no call went out for a new constitutional convention to settle the validity of tariff protection. Instead, legislatures in eight southern states passed resolutions condemning South Carolina’s nullification . . . .
“While Jackson’s willingness to coerce South Carolina if necessary undoubtedly worried southerners and doughfaces, his new support for tariff reduction, his record on Indian Removal, his professions of faith in strict construction, and his undoubted devotion to slavery and white supremacy combined to reassure them. His Force Bill provoked eloquent congressional oratory on state and national sovereignty, but little serious opposition. The Force Bill passed the House with more than a three-quarters majority (149 to 48) and the Senate with but one dissenting vote (though nine southern senators, including those from south Carolina, stayed away). For the time being at least, the slaveholding South appeared content to rely for protection on normal politics, with a sympathetic president representing the will of a majority of the electorate, rather than on a novel and drastic theory about state sovereignty.”