In 1828 Congress passed a fractious law that many in the agricultural south called the “Tariff of Abominations.” This was an allusion to the biblical “abomination of desolation,” a passage in the Book of Daniel that prophesied a sacrilege against the Jewish temple in Jerusalem.
The primary objection to the tariff law of 1828 was that it protected U.S. manufacturing in the north at the expense of agricultural interests in the South. It was seen by many in the “cotton south” as a direct threat to their markets since the law would certainly exact reprisals from the south’s largest customer, Great Britain.
The future of cotton exports was being threatened because any protective tariff that favored U.S. manufacturing over British manufacturing would directly impact the southern market for cotton. It would essentially force southern cotton farmers into selling their product only to northern U.S. textile manufacturers at lower prices. It would create what is known as a “monopsonist” market–a market where there is only one buyer but many sellers.
Furthermore, it would force the British to seek other sources of raw cotton, and it would force southerners into buying more northern manufactured goods, which were more expensive than the ones being imported from Britain. One irony of this situation is that the British were already flirting with abolition and would soon reduce their purchase of southern slave cotton even after the tariff issue was resolved in 1833.
So, in 1828 Southerners faced the “double-whammy” of falling prices for cotton and an increased cost for manufactured goods, and this was setting the southern political landscape on fire. This is not just a metaphor since many cotton farmers would choose to burn their cotton rather than sell it for the prices dictated by northern manufacturers. The hope was that destroying some cotton would raise the overall price of what remained in the market.
In the midst of all this controversy rose a lone, anonymous voice that captured the rebellious spirit of the south. We now know that John C. Calhoun is the one who wrote the political document titled South Carolina Exposition and Protest (1828). Because he was the Vice President of the United States under both John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, Calhoun did not publicly reveal his authorship until shortly before he had parted ways with the Jackson administration at the end of 1832.
There is one central argument in the Exposition and Protest: the federal government should not act unless they have the unanimous consent of all the states within the union. Calhoun would later flesh out this theory in his political treatise Disquisition on Government (1849).
What Calhoun’s ideas amount to is the principle that each state has the power to declare a law “unconstitutional.” This idea became known as “nullification,” which you should have read about in high school. In other words, nullification says that each state has the same power as the Supreme Court. Each state can declare a federal law unconstitutional. This is a power that had been accruing to the Supreme Court since the precedent-setting case of Marbury v. Madison (1803). Again, you should have learned this in high school.
There are two ideas that briefly encapsulate the thinking of John Calhoun. The first is that each state in the Union has reserved to it, through the Tenth Amendment, the right of vetoing any law passed by Congress. Of course, this only extends to laws deemed “unconstitutional” and it is unclear whether Calhoun thought the Supreme Court had any central role in this debate, even though the Constitution itself says that the Supreme Court will have supremacy in all disputes arising among the states (Article III, Section 2). Calhoun further said that any state which did not receive redress through nullification then had the right to secede from the Union, an idea that became the chief justification for southern secession prior to the U.S. Civil War.
The second idea, which is fleshed out more fully in Calhoun’s Disquisition, is that no federated form of government should be able to change the compact (i.e., the constitution) by which a union was achieved unless it be by unanimous consent of the states. Of course, this runs counter to the very Constitution under which the American Union had already been established. The U.S. Constitution only requires a two-thirds majority in Congress to get an amendment to the states and only three-quarters of the states have to approve the amendment before it becomes law.
Beginning in 1828 Calhoun begins to map out the intellectual justification for the maintenance of the slave state and the slave aristocracy of the South. He essentially argues that the federal government is limited by the Tenth Amendment, which gives each state a veto on federal legislation. He then goes on to argue that rather than a “super majority” of states passing Constitutional amendments we should have “unanimous consent,” just as the original Constitution had when it was approved by all thirteen states. Barring unanimity, states then have the legal recourse of nullification, and, if need be, secession.
The problem with this view is that it makes of a mockery of democratic institutions, federated government, and of the very idea of politics–which is largely about horse-trading. That Calhoun and his “confederates” were eventually able to finagle some concessions from the federal government in 1833, does not lend any credence to their intellectual position. The compromise also belied their own commitment to Calhoun’s ideas, because if they were truly committed to these ideas they would never have allowed the “Force Bill” to go unchallenged. The Force Bill gave the President the power to enforce federal law with “whatever force necessary.”
Less than thirty years later 600,000 souls were being sacrificed on the battlefields of America’s Civil War. They were dying to litigate Calhoun’s earlier propositions. However, the Civil War does not seem to have put these rebellious notions to rest.
Today the impasse in Washington, DC, would suggest that Calhoun’s ghost still haunts our political and intellectual landscape. One hundred and forty-eight years after the Civil War we are still at the mercy of those who believe that the constitutionally valid acts of Congress can be subverted by the minority, that it is appropriate to ignore majority opinion and to reject the decisions of the Supreme Court.
The Republicans have chosen to get their way no matter what the cost, even if that cost means the hobbling of the U.S. economy and political chaos. These crypto-Calhounites may have given up on the dream of secession, but if the Republicans are successful now it would mean a feckless federal government given over to the highest bidder. It would mean a federally weak system more akin to the European Union, which is not a political union but an economic union.
So, if we are to finally exorcise the ghost of Calhoun from our national politics it will mean winning the present battle against Republican political and economic destruction; it will also mean making sure that the Republican Party after November 2014 is not in a position to do this again.
The only answer to our present crisis, and to any similar Republican-instigated crisis in the future, is the complete repudiation of the national Republican Party. Maybe then they will learn that respect for the Constitution and democracy are the only way forward? Maybe then they will learn that they need to adjust to a changing world rather than trying to drag us back to a time in our history that never was? Maybe then they will become a true party of financial responsibility without the excess baggage of cultural conservatism?