Andrew Jackson was elected as President of the United States because the American people saw him as the “everyman.” His leadership during the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 gave him the respect of wealthy businessmen, and his simple roots resonated with those who were struggling to carve their own niche. However, his popularity did not ensure that he would avoid scandal and resentment during his presidency.
Jackson’s supporters, angry over John Quincy Adams’ win in the 1824 election, strategized to sabotage his presidency. They pushed a proposal through Congress that would raise tariffs significantly on manufactured items such as wool and textiles. Since Adams was a New Englander and any hike in tariff duties would be enthusiastically supported there, Jacksonians hoped to portray Adams as favoring his home region over the south and west.
The Jacksonians expected a backlash from their somewhat outrageous tariff proposal, which was exactly their purpose. They hoped to push this tariff through to embarrass Adams and his administration and to assist Jackson in getting elected in 1828.
As it turned out, Jackson did not need the tariff to be elected; his popularity got him elected in 1828. However, the proposal was still on the table. It finally passed in 1828, and instead of being an embarrassment to Adams, it wreaked havoc during Jackson’s presidency and came to be called the “Tariff of Abominations.”
When the tariff went into effect, Southerners complained long and loudly. While other parts of the country were experiencing a boom, the economy in the south was stalling. Manufacturing interests, especially in the north, could gain assistance from a “protective tariff,” but Southerners felt the financial strain of the tariffs due to their reliance on northern commodities. Residents of the south felt they were being treated unfairly, and they rallied against the Tariff of 1828 and against Jackson himself.
South Carolina, in particular, acted out against the Tariff of 1828. South Carolinans campaigned heavily against the tariff, justifying their arguments with the principles set out in the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions written in the previous century by Jefferson and Madison to support states’ rights. They also supported their case by arguing that the U.S. Constitution allowed states to individually nullify federal laws for the whole union.
The South Carolina legislature published a pamphlet titled “The South Carolina Exposition,” which offered persuasive arguments for nullifying the Tariff of 1828, stating that it was unjust and unconstitutional. South Carolina eventually revealed that the author of “The South Carolina Exposition” was none other than John C. Calhoun, Vice President of the United States. Calhoun was raised in South Carolina and supported the efforts to nullify the Tariff of 1828.
Supporters of nullification, who came to be known as the “nullies,” attempted to pass nullification through the South Carolina state legislature, but their efforts were impeded by the Unionists, a small but determined group of men who believed that states did not hold nullification rights. Although other states made rumblings about joining South Carolina’s cause, none ever actually did, and South Carolina fought the tariff battle alone.
The nullification cause benefited from Calhoun’s leadership. Calhoun was serving as Jackson’s Vice President, but he had fallen out of Jackson’s favor as his successor thanks in part to Martin Van Buren’s efforts. Van Buren, who was Secretary of State, delighted in any situation that widened the divide between Jackson and Calhoun.
One infamous situation that caused a rift between Jackson and Calhoun, and helped confirm Van Buren as Jackson’s favorite, was the Peggy Eaton affair. Peggy, the wife of Secretary of War John Eaton, had been accused of adultery prior to her marriage to John. The gossip mill speculated that Peggy had cheated on her first husband with John, causing her first husband to commit suicide. Even though John married Peggy, the shroud of dishonor stayed with her.
Jackson had lived through similar scandals surrounding his wife, Rachel. He and Rachel had married, erroneously believing that her divorce from her first husband had been finalized. When the mistake was discovered, Jackson had the divorce finalized and he and Rachel remarried, this time legally. Still, Jackson’s detractors accused Rachel of being an adulteress, and Jackson blamed those accusers for her illness and eventual death.
Not wanting Peggy Eaton and her husband to suffer the same fate, Jackson demanded that his cabinet and their wives treat Peggy as their social equal. However, Calhoun’s wife, Floride, continued to snub Eaton and directed her friends to do the same. Calhoun, hoping to keep domestic harmony, followed Floride’s lead, much to Jackson’s dismay. However Van Buren, a widower who had no worries about marital discord, was free to lavish Eaton with attention, putting him in the President’s favor.
Van Buren also took every opportunity to point out where Calhoun’s opinions differed from Jackson’s, particularly where federal aid to local projects was concerned. One major project that sought federal aid was the national road-building effort. In 1830, Congress passed a proposal for a road in Kentucky to run from Maysville to Lexington. Calhoun supported this effort and championed the use of federal dollars for the Maysville Road construction, since it would eventually be linked to a national road.
However, Jackson exercised his veto power. He acted partially out of his continued animosity for Henry Clay (whose home state would benefit entirely from the Maysville Road), and partly out of his belief that providing federal aid for a single state project was unconstitutional. Supporters of the Maysville Road project were quite angry, and they began calling Jackson “King Andrew” because they believed he had abused his power as President.
Calhoun was dismayed at Jackson’s rejection of both the Maysville Road proposal and of him as Jackson’s political successor. Jackson made his feeling clear about Calhoun on April 13, 1830, during an annual event honoring the birthday of ex-President Thomas Jefferson. During the party, at which both Jackson and Calhoun were present, every toast given extolled states’ rights—until Jackson’s turn, that is. His toast, “Our Union—It must be preserved!” left no doubt about his position, or about his opposition to Calhoun.
Calhoun immediately followed Jackson’s toast with one of his own extolling states’ rights, but for Calhoun, it was apparent that his differences with Jackson would limit his political aspirations. Still, he was determined to fight for his home state, and having lost his hopes for ascending the political ladder, Calhoun switched his focus to championing the south.
Calhoun was not the only prominent figure fighting for South Carolina’s rights. Senator Robert Y. Hayne followed Calhoun’s example of leadership during an event that would come to be known as the Hayne-Webster debate.
Hayne was serving in the Senate when a fellow senator, Samuel A. Foot of Connecticut, proposed a restriction on the sale of western lands still owned by the federal government. Believing that this proposal was an attempt to restrict western expansion and the inevitable political influence of a strong western region, Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton appealed to the South to join forces with him to defeat the proposal. Governor Hayne recognized the potential benefits of an alliance with the emerging west and he quickly stepped forward.
Hayne was soon drawn into a debate to justify his position. The proposal to restrict western expansion was originated by Samuel Foot, but it was the eloquent and dynamic orator Daniel Webster, a senator from Massachusetts, who engaged in verbal sparring with Hayne. Although Hayne was an able speaker in his own right, he was no match for the awe-inspiring Webster.
During the debate, Daniel Webster was able to steer Hayne toward another sensitive issue—nullification. Webster underscored nationalism and the destruction which could befall a nation that allows one state to nullify a federal law, making himself out to be a unifier and Hayne a divider. Hayne made attempts to steer the debate back to the interpretation of the Constitution regarding the sale of federal lands, but the damage was done. Daniel Webster won the debate with his argument for nationalism, and Hayne lost public support for his interpretation of the Constitution.
South Carolina stood firm against the Tariff of 1828 with such acts of defiance as lowering the flags to half-mast. These displays made President Jackson realize that intervention was necessary. John C. Calhoun still carried some influence with the president, who at Calhoun’s urging encouraged Congress to enact the Tariff of 1832. This new tariff reduced the rate of the Tariff of 1828. However, producers in the south remained distraught over the high tariffs and resisted this compromise, as well.
Again, the nullies asked the South Carolina legislature to nullify the tariff, which would affect the entire union. This time, the legislature agreed. In fact, the legislature went further by choosing Robert Y. Hayne as the new South Carolina governor, selecting Calhoun to fulfill Hayne’s spot in the Senate, and threatening to secede from the Union if the tariffs were not reduced.
However, President Jackson was tired of threats from the nullies, and disgusted by the idea that one state could nullify a federal law and secede from the union. His response was firm. He met their challenge by raising an army and sending it to South Carolina. Shortly after his re-election, in his annual message on December 4, 1832, Jackson stated his intention to enforce the tariff, although he too encouraged Congress to reduce the burdensome tariff rates.
Jackson followed his speech six days later with the Nullification Proclamation, which further denounced South Carolina’s action. With his army standing ready to enforce the tariff, Jackson called South Carolina’s bluff. He called upon Congress to develop a “Force Bill” to authorize his use of army personnel to enforce the tariff. Existing legislation already granted him that power, but Jackson felt that a new and specific bill would strengthen his case against South Carolina.
With South Carolina painted into a corner, Calhoun, who had resigned his vice presidency to lead the nullification cause, pleaded with his old friend Henry Clay to help him draft a solution. Clay, who had been embroiled in the scandals surrounding the 1824 presidential election, responded with a compromise proposal. Under Clay’s plan, the high tariffs that burdened the South would be reduced by ten percent over an eight-year period. The Compromise Tariff of 1833 was passed by a small minority in Congress, but it finally brought about significant tariff change.The new rates were not as low as the Southerners would have liked, but they were more pleased with the compromise than they were with the Force Bill, which they called the “Bloody Bill.” In response, although the South Carolina legislature voted to rescind its nullification of the tariff acts, it also nullified Jackson’s Force Bill. By then the nullification of the Force Bill was a moot point, but it allowed South Carolina to feel a small taste of victory. However, the issues of nullification and secession had stirred the first rumblings that would eventually lead to the Civil War.