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Toward the end of his first term in office, United States president Andrew Jackson was forced to confront the state of South Carolina on the issue of the protective tariff enacted in by the United States federal government to benefit trade in the northern states. It was deemed a “Tariff of Abominations” and its provisions would have seriously injured South Carolina’s economy if left in force. Business and farming interests in the state had hoped that Jackson would use his presidential power to modify tariff laws they had long opposed. In their view, all the benefits of protection were going to Northern manufacturers, and while the country as a whole grew richer, South Carolina grew poorer, with its planters bearing the burden of higher prices.
The protective tariff passed by Congress and signed into law by Jackson in was milder than that of , but it further embittered many in the state. In response, a number of South Carolina citizens endorsed the states’ rights principle of “nullification,” which was enunciated by John C. Calhoun, Jackson’s vice president until , in his South Carolina Exposition and Protest (). South Carolina dealt with the tariff by adopting the Ordinance of Nullification, which declared both the tariffs of and null and void within state borders. The legislature also passed laws to enforce the ordinance, including authorization for raising a military force and appropriations for arms.
Nullification was only the most recent in a series of state challenges to the authority of the federal government. There had been a continuing contest between the states and the national government over the power of the latter, and over the loyalty of the citizenry, almost since the founding of the republic. The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions of , for example, had defied the Alien and Sedition Acts, and at the Hartford Convention, New England voiced its opposition to President Madison, the War of , and discussed secession from the Union.
In response to South Carolina’s threat, Jackson sent seven small naval vessels and a man-of-war to Charleston in November . On December , he issued a resounding proclamation against the nullifiers. South Carolina, the president declared, stood on “the brink of insurrection and treason,” and he appealed to the people of the state to reassert their allegiance to that Union for which their ancestors had fought.
When the question of tariff duties again came before Congress, it soon became clear that only one man, Senator Henry Clay, the great advocate of protection (and a political rival of Jackson), could pilot a compromise measure through Congress. Clay’s tariff bill — quickly passed in — specified that all duties in excess of percent of the value of the goods imported were to be reduced by easy stages, so that by , the duties on all articles would reach the level of the moderate tariff of .
Nullification leaders in South Carolina had expected the support of other Southern states, but without exception, the rest of the South declared South Carolina’s course unwise and unconstitutional. Eventually, South Carolina rescinded its action. Both sides, nevertheless, claimed victory. Jackson had committed the federal government to the principle of Union supremacy. But South Carolina, by its show of resistance, had obtained many of the demands it sought, and had demonstrated that a single state could force its will on Congress.