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Nullification Crisis

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Lithographic portrait of John C. Calhoun

John C. Calhoun of South Carolina

Stock Montage/Getty Images Lithographic portrait of President Andrew Jackson

President Andrew Jackson

Stock Montage/Getty Images

Definition:

The Nullification Crisis arose in the early 1830s when leaders of South Carolina advanced the idea that a state did not have to follow a federal law and could, in effect, "nullify" the law.

The idea that "states' rights" superseded federal law was promoted by John C. Calhoun, one of the most experienced and powerful politicians in the country, and was, to some extent, a precursor to the secession crisis that would trigger the Civil War 30 years later.

Calhoun and others from South Carolina were outraged by a tariff passed in 1828 which had raised taxes on imports.

The 1828 tariff was so controversial, in various regions of the country, that it became known as the Tariff of Abominations.

Calhoun and others felt the tariff unfairly targeted the southern states, and that the states were not obligated by the U.S. Constitution to follow the law.

At that time, Calhoun wrote an essay advancing a theory of nullification, in which he made a legal case for states to disregard some federal laws.

In the early 1830s, Calhoun was serving as vice president to Andrew Jackson. With the issue of a tariff again rising to prominence, Calhoun resigned his position, returned to South Carolina, and was elected to the Senate, where he promoted his idea of nullification.

For a time it appeared that armed conflict might result if South Carolina seceded from the Union.

The crisis was finally put to rest in 1833 when a compromise was reached on a new tariff. But the Nullification Crisis demonstrated that disputes between various regions of the nation could cause enormous problems.

 

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