By 1832, the crisis that Calhoun helped create reached dangerous heights. A convention met in South Carolina and declared the tariffs null and void, despite a reduction in rates that Congress ratified to pacify the Southerners. The assembled group also summoned 25,000 state militiamen to counter federal forces. Worst of all, the convention vowed to secede if the federal government tried to stop South Carolina from flouting the law. On Dec. 28, 1832, Calhoun resigned as vice president and took a South Carolina Senate seat.
It was during this process that nullification went from being an abstract bit of political theorizing to an actual threat to the union.
Andrew Jackson would have none of this, particularly coming from his former vice president, whom he had grown to detest. Despite being a slave owner and Southerner himself, the president bluntly declared that the nullifiers were guilty of “treason” and warned that “if one drop of blood be shed there in defiance of the laws of the United States, I will hang the first man . . . I can get my hands on to the first tree I can find.”
Jackson wasn’t kidding. Memorably, when asked whether he thought Jackson was serious, an ally of the president replied that “when Jackson begins to talk about hanging . . . look out for ropes!” But Jackson’s response was equal parts bombast and crass pragmatism: As he rattled federal sabers, he also moved the collection of tariffs offshore, away from South Carolina ports, lowering the chance of a clash between federal and state forces. He simultaneously sanctioned a face-saving reduction in the tariffs, enabling the nullifiers to declare victory and go home. The most serious constitutional crisis before the Civil War had been averted.
The nation faces a crisis sparked by many of the same dynamics: An aggrieved minority hates a federal law and wants to do everything in its power to kill it. And it is within its rights to do so, up to a point. As Bloomberg View columnist Ramesh Ponnuru has rightly observed, it is neither shocking nor surprising that the Republicans have exploited loopholes in the law to delay its passage. While liberals may not like it, Republicans are playing by the rules.
But recent threats to shut down the government or, worse, default on the debt represent a revocation of the rules. In its nihilism, the tea party is closer in spirit to the nullifiers of the 1830s, who were willing to put the union at risk to defeat a national law.
“Let it never be forgotten,” Calhoun once said, that “where the majority rules, the minority is the subject.” Perhaps, but nullification and secession, like the tea party tactics of today, elevated the minority into a position of terrifying power. One tyranny simply replaces another.
These tactics have long-term costs. If the U.S. defaults on its debt because a handful of Republican legislators don’t like a law vetted by all branches of government, the damage will go beyond a much lower credit rating. Something else — a sense that the U.S. is, for all its differences, united — will have been lost.
Stephen Mihm, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, is a contributor to the Ticker.