Federal authority and states rights

From the time that the original thirteen colonies declared their independence from Great Britain in 1776, Americans worked to develop an effective system of democratic government. The first comprehensive rules of government passed were the Articles of Confederation, which were ratified (legally approved) in 1781. Under the terms of this document, the individual states held most of the country's legislative power. The Articles of Confederation also provided for the creation of a central or federal government to guide the nation, but this government was given so little authority that it was unable to do much.

Within a few years, most legislators agreed that they needed to make some changes. American leaders subsequently adopted the U.S. Constitution, which provided additional powers to the federal government. But congressional leaders also made sure that the individual states retained some rights, inserting language that was designed to strike a balance between federal and state power.

Complaints about this arrangement flared up from time to time in both the northern and southern regions of the country, as Supreme Court decisions (McCulloch v. Maryland, 1819) and other events expand ed the scope of federal authority. Southerners became particularly skeptical of federal power because they worried that the national government might someday try to outlaw slavery over the objections of individual Southern states.

Then, in the late 1820s, federal actions on two major issues made Southern lawmakers angrier than they had ever been before. First, the federal government attached high purchase prices to most of the territory out west in order to increase its revenues. Southerners had hoped that the land would be inexpensive so that they could buy land to increase their production of cotton and other crops without spending too much money.

The action that most angered Southerners, however, was the federal government's decision to impose high tariffs, or taxes, on goods from other countries. This system of tariffs was passed in 1828 at the insistence of Northern businessmen, who knew that people would continue to buy their products if European goods were made more expensive by the tariffs. Southerners reacted furiously, calling the 1828 tariff a "tariff of abominations." They said that the tariff would force Southerners to buy products from Northern merchants who, protected by the tariff on foreign goods, would be able to charge higher prices. Ignoring Southern complaints, Congress passed a second Tariff Act in 1832 that was also seen as providing benefits to the North at the expense of the South.

^^ People to Know

James Buchanan (1791-1868) fifteenth president of the United States, 1857-61

John C. Calhoun (1782-1850) South Carolina politician; vice-president of the United States, 1825-32

Henry Clay (1777-1852) Kentucky politician who wrote Missouri Compromise and Compromise of 1850

Stephen Douglas (1813-1861) Illinois politician; defeated Abraham Lincoln in 1858 U.S. Senate election

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) primary author of America's Declaration of Independence; third president of the United States, 1801-9

William Seward (1801-1872) New York politician; U.S. secretary of state, 1861-69

Led by Senator John C. Calhoun (1782-1850), a former vice president of the United States, the South Carolina legislature decided to take a stand against the new tariffs. In November 1832, state legislators passed the Ordinance of Nullification, which described the new taxes as "unconstitutional, oppressive [harsh], and unjust." The language of the bill reflected the legislature's belief that the state had the right to disregard the new federal tariff laws because it did not support them. South Carolina backed up

President Andrew Jackson was vehemently opposed to South Carolina's secession posturing. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

this proclamation of "states' rights" by calling for the organization of a militia (an army of regular citizens) to defend the state against any federal "invasion." Suddenly, South Carolina looked as if it was on the verge of trying to secede (withdraw) from the United States.

U.S. president Andrew Jackson (1767-1845) was appalled by the passage of the South Carolina bill, and he warned state officials that he was willing to use the military to enforce federal law. "Can any one of common sense believe the absurdity that a fac tion of any state, or a state, has a right to secede and destroy this union and the liberty of our country with it; or nullify laws of the union?" he wrote. "Then indeed is our constitution a rope of sand. . . . The union must be preserved, and it will now be tested, by the support I get from the people. I will die for the union." But even as Jackson prepared for military action, he tried to convince Congress to address South Carolina's complaints by making changes to the tariff laws.

In early 1833, the tense situation was finally resolved. Both the federal and South Carolina governments agreed on a compromised system of reduced tariffs. But the so-called "nullification crisis" had a lasting impact in the United States. It further strained relations between the North and the South and convinced many Southerners that the concept of states' rights was their best weapon against Northern abolitionists. Finally, South Carolina's defiant stand introduced the idea of secession to a generation of Southerners. All across the South, from Richmond, Virginia, to New Orleans, Louisiana, white communities began to wonder if secession from the Union might ultimately be the only way for them to keep their way of life intact.

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