Preserving our federal union

Bill Bennett
Posted: May 23, 2006 12:01 AM

 Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from Bill Bennett’s latest book, America: The Last Best Hope, released today. The book can be purchased here.

South Carolina was in turmoil over what it called the "Tariff of Abominations 1828." The Constitution did not permit the federal government to tax exports. South Carolinians and other planter aristocrats would never have signed the document if it had. But tariffs—taxes on imports—could prove onerous for an agriculture-based economy. They had to import many of their machines and nearly all their luxuries.

As planters and slaveholders, they expected Jackson to side with them against the "Tariff of Abominations of 1828" that Congress had approved in 1828. Vice President Calhoun had not-so-anonymously penned his famous "Exposition and Protest of 1828." In that document, Calhoun went beyond the positions staked out by Madison and Jefferson in their Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798. Calhoun argued that when a state’s rights were violated by the federal government, the state had a right to nullify the offending federal law and prevent its enforcement within the borders of the state. If that failed, Calhoun clearly implied, the state had a right to leave the Union.

Thus, secession, the logical end result of nullification, began seriously to be argued by slaveholders. The South was, to be sure, not the only section that had argued for secession. High Federalists had toyed with it in New England during the War of 1812. Westerners had from time to time threatened it. But this was the first time disunion was incorporated into a serious political philosophy.

Calhoun’s ideas were publicly defended by South Carolina’s senior U.S. senator, Robert Y. Hayne. In January 1830, Hayne spoke at length on his "compact theory" of the Union. Under this theory, the Union was a league, or compact, of the states. They formed it; if it ever threatens their rights, they can dissolve it. Hayne’s conclusions were carefully and closely reasoned and would have been persuasive—if the Union were a mere league or compact.

Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster arose to dispute Hayne’s interpretation of the Constitution. Vice President Calhoun presided over the Senate, adding to the drama of the clash. The "Godlike Daniel"—as his admirers called him—proceeded to shred the case made by Hayne. "I go for the Union as it is," he cried, flinging his words as a challenge to Calhoun. "It is, Sir, the people’s Constitution, the people’s government, made for the people, made by the people, and answerable to the people."

The Senate galleries were packed to hear Webster’s reply to Hayne. Webster thrilled his listeners with his emotional but reasoned defense of the Union. The conclusion of his two-day, six-hour address was so stirring that generations of American schoolchildren learned it by heart:

I have not allowed myself, sir, to look beyond the Union, to see what might be hidden in the dark recess behind. I have not coolly weighed the chances of preserving liberty when the bonds that unite us together shall be broken asunder. I have not accustomed myself to hang over the precipice of disunion, to see whether, with my short sight, I can fathom the depth of the abyss below; nor could I regard him as a safe counselor in the affairs in this government whose thoughts should be mainly bent on considering, not how the Union may be best preserved but how tolerable might be the condition of the people when it should be broken up and destroyed. While the Union lasts, we have high, exciting, gratifying prospects spread out before us, for us and our children. Beyond that I seek not to penetrate the veil.

God grant that in my day, at least, that curtain may not rise! God grant that on my vision never may be opened what lies behind! When my eyes shall be turned to behold for the last time the sun in heaven, may I not see him shining on the broken and dishonored fragments of a once glorious Union; on states dissevered, discordant, belligerent; on a land rent with civil feuds, or drenched, it may be, in fraternal blood!

Let their last feeble and lingering glance rather behold the gorgeous ensign of the republic, now known and honored throughout the earth, still full high advanced, its arms and trophies streaming in their original luster, not a stripe erased or polluted, nor a single star obscured, bearing for its motto, no such miserable interrogatory as "What is all this worth?" nor those other words of delusion and folly, "Liberty first and Union afterwards"; but everywhere, spread all over in characters of living light, blazing on all its ample folds, as they float over the sea and over the land, and in every wind under the whole heavens, that other sentiment, dear to every true American heart— Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!

Imagine the excitement of the people in the gallery as they watched Calhoun’s expressive face when Webster hurled those stinging words—not a "safe counselor"—directly at him. Nicholas Trist was one of those who witnessed this drama. Grandson-in-law of Thomas Jefferson and an advisor to President Jackson, Trist wrote to James Madison that Webster’s devastating reply to Hayne was like "the mammoth deliberately treading the canebrake."

Attention soon focused on the Jefferson Day banquet—13 April 1830—at Washington’s Indian Queen Hotel. Toasts and speeches by the leading Democrats praised the Sage of Monticello’s commitment to states’ rights. They implied he would favor nullification. Out of courtesy, President Jackson was asked to deliver a toast. No "Ebony and Topaz" on this occasion, Jackson looked directly at John C. Calhoun and vowed: "Our federal Union. It must be preserved!"

There was stunned silence. Little Van Buren stood on a chair to see the clash of wills. Pale and shaken, Calhoun raised his glass, even spilling some of his wine. Then he said: "The Union, next to our liberty, the most dear."

President Jackson regarded himself as a sincere Jeffersonian. He believed in states’ rights. But he was firmly opposed to nullification. Jackson could rely on the great prestige of James Madison, the Father of the Constitution and Jefferson’s intimate friend of half a century. Former President Madison spoke out from his retirement home, Montpelier.

The people, not the states, had created the Union, Madison argued. The people had created the Union and the states. Still vigorous in his eightieth year, Madison in October 1830 denounced Calhoun’s doctrine of nullification. The result of nullification must be "a final rupture and dissolution of the Union." Such an event "must be shuddered at by every friend to his country, to liberty, to the happiness of man," Madison wrote.

Madison enjoyed enormous prestige as the last survivor of the Constitutional Convention and as Jefferson’s political lieutenant, successor, and heir. He utterly rejected the "nullies" (Jackson’s name for them) propositions. If they did not yield to reason, he wrote, "the explanation will lie between an impenetrable stupidity and an incurable prejudice."

As the crisis over nullification intensified, Calhoun cast his lot with South Carolina. When Jackson chose Van Buren as his running mate and was reelected in 1832, Calhoun knew he would never be president. He even resigned as vice president. South Carolina immediately sent him to represent her in the Senate (a seat he held until his death in 1850). Congress passed a new Tariff of 1832 designed to mollify South Carolina by removing some but not all of the offending portions of the "Tariff of Abominations."

Urged on by Calhoun, South Carolina convened a Nullification Convention. South Carolina planters believed the tariff was responsible for their economic depression. They even spoke of it as a "forty bale” tariff. They charged the tariff with costing them forty of every one hundred bales of cotton they produced. On 24 November 1832, this convention passed an Ordinance of Nullification. This ordinance said the Tariff of 1832 was "null and void" and would not be obeyed in South Carolina after 1 February 1833.

Even more ominously, the ordinance declared that if Jackson attempted to use force, the state would secede from the Union. Some "nullies" even struck medals bearing the inscription: "John C. Calhoun, First President of the Southern Confederacy."

Jackson responded quickly with his own Proclamation to the People of South Carolina on 10 December 1832. The Union, he said, was not the creature of the states. The Union was older than the states, he said: "Perpetuity is stamped upon the Constitution by blood. . . ." "Those who told you," he wrote to the people of his native state, "that you might peacefully prevent . . .execution [of the laws] deceived you. . . . Their object is disunion. But be not deceived by names. Disunion by armed force is treason. Are you really ready to incur its guilt?"

Jackson did not rule out compromise. He called for a lowering of the tariff to more acceptable levels. And he sought support from Unionists within South Carolina and other Southern states. He was not disappointed. Virginia, Georgia, and Alabama gave him support. Leading South Carolina opponents of nullification took heart. "What have we to fear, we are right and God and Old Hickory are with us," they exulted.

South Carolina had reason to fear. In many low country districts, slaves outnumbered freemen three and four to one. The Denmark Vesey plan for a slave rebellion had been nipped in the bud in 1822, but white Carolinians read with horror the story of Nat Turner’s 1831 rebellion in Virginia. Turner was a slave, a spell-binding preacher who believed he had a Godgiven mission to raise a band of slaves to slaughter remote farm families. He killed nearly a hundred whites before the militia subdued him and his small force. The retribution that was carried out chilled everyone’s blood.

South Carolinians had also rushed to beat Jefferson’s 1808 deadline for cutting off the African slave trade. They hastily imported forty thousand slaves from the "Gold Coast" of Africa. Many of these, still speaking the Gullah dialect the planters could not understand, added to the South Carolinians’ fears of being surrounded on their farms.

With a 1 January 1831 editorial, a new paper appeared in America that would herald the birth of a powerful movement. Editor William Lloyd Garrison cast away the tact and moderation of the past. Inaugurating his journal, the Liberator, Garrison stated, "I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. . . . I am in earnest—I will not equivocate—I will not excuseI will not retreat a single inch—and I WILL BE HEARD."

To Southerners, Garrison and his little newspaper seemed as reckless as a man smoking in a powder magazine. From the safe distance of Massachusetts, Garrison could demand immediate abolition of slavery. The planters of South Carolina felt they would be not only economically ruined, but perhaps even exterminated were they to relax their grip on their slaves. But Garrison was heard.

South Carolinians led the entire South in these days in taking care not to refer to slavery directly. They talked around the subject, using such terms as "our peculiar institution" and "our domestic policy." Southern slaveholders did not want Congress even to debate slavery. They feared that any open discussion of the topic would provide the "spark" that would ignite a fullscale revolt. They suppressed abolitionist newspapers as "incendiary." Even one of their favorite holidays—the Fourth of July—came to be a time of unbearable tension as planters feared their slaves would hear the inspiring words of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence and realize that their Creator intended that they, too, should be free.

If the nullies carried out their plans, the Hero let it be known he would lead ten thousand volunteers into South Carolina to "crush and hang" all traitors. He vowed to hold Fort Sumter, in Charleston harbor, "to the last extremity." He rammed a Force Bill through Congress, a measure that authorized him to coerce South Carolina into compliance with law.

Although the immediate cause of the controversy was the tariff, everyone knew that at the bottom of it all lay slavery. Calhoun acknowledged this. "I consider the Tariff but the occasion rather than the real cause of the present unhappy state of things. . . ." The states must be allowed to guard their "domestick institutions" or be forced to rebel, he said.

Into this explosive mix stepped Kentucky Senator Henry Clay. Although recently defeated by Jackson for the presidency, Clay labored mightily to put together the Compromise Tariff of 1833. The bill met many of the demands of the nullifiers. This bill passed Congress and went to the president’s desk on the same day that the Force Bill arrived there. This combination of firmness and flexibility proved successful. Senator Calhoun’s mind doubtless was concentrated by Jackson’s threat to hang him "as high as Haman." Calhoun accepted the Compromise Tariff and the crisis eased.

President Jackson had been born in South Carolina. He was himself a planter, a slaveholder. He had sympathy for the South Carolina planters. But on disunion, he would not budge. He was not called Old Hickory for nothing.

"Nullification is dead," Jackson pronounced, but he knew the longterm clash was not resolved. 'The next pretext will be the Negro or slavery question," he accurately predicted. Henry Clay here earned the title "the Great Compromiser." His unselfish and timely action helped save the Union. But it was the fearless Old Hickory who had "shoot" in his eyes.

Even on his deathbed in 1845, Jackson admitted that he regretted only two things: that none of his race horses had ever beaten the famed Haynie’s Maria—and that he had not hanged John C. Calhoun.

Editor's Note: The preceding was an excerpt from Bill Bennett’s latest book, America: The Last Best Hope, released today. The book can be purchased here.