Chapter 11: The Nullification Crisis

A. Explain the ways in which the various documents understand the relationship between the states and the federal government. Which is the more legitimate reflection of the people’s authority? What is the “great and leading principle” upon which the Constitution and Union were founded according to John C. Calhoun? Why do Calhoun and Robert Y. Hayne believe the states must have the final say regarding the powers of Congress? What arguments do Madison and the author of the Epitaph for the Constitution use to counter this position?
B. How do the arguments about the relationship between the states and the federal government presented here reflect those raised at the time of ratification and the Hartford Convention? How do they differ? In what ways are these issues similar to the ones raised by the Imperial Crisis between Britain and the Colonies?
C. Would the type of political dissent exemplified in these documents have been “legal” under the terms of the National Security Act? How do the idealized understandings of union illustrated by the texts here relate to the comments of Carter and Reagan on what Americans owe to one another and to their government?

Because the government of the United States under the Constitution was designed to be neither wholly national nor wholly federal, the question of how much sovereignty was retained by each of the individual states vis-à-vis the national government remained unresolved even after ratification. Indeed, some states, like Virginia and New York, explicitly included provisions outlining the right of the people either organically, or through their state governments, to resume their political authority in the event the national government proved unable to affect the purposes for which it had been established. A less dramatic version of this understanding underlay the Virginia and Kentucky Resolves of 1798/1799. Authored by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, respectively, these documents upheld a robust vision of the states as constitutional interpreters, even (in the case of Kentucky) asserting that within its own borders, a state had the ability to nullify (or, in effect, to disregard) any federal law it believed to be unconstitutional.

Although the 1803 Marbury v. Madison decision helped claim for the Supreme Court the power to declare laws unconstitutional, the idea that the states had a legitimate ability to weigh in on the constitutionality of federal measures (previously manifested in the Hartford Convention) gained ground in the 1820s, particularly in the agricultural South, where people viewed national economic policies as unfairly partial toward Northern manufacturing. South Carolinians took the lead in protesting the federal “tariff of abominations” in 1828.

President Andrew Jackson publicly refuted all arguments in favor of nullification, and brought a swift end to South Carolina’s rhetorical rebellion by threatening to use military force against the state if it did not comply with federal law. Many Northerners believed that nullification was not only a philosophical absurdity, but also directly linked to the perpetuation of the institution of slavery. They applauded Jackson’s actions as a defense of not only the Union, but also of freedom itself. The theory of state sovereignty at the heart of nullification continued to appeal to many Americans and contributed to the deepening divide between Northerners and southerners during the antebellum period, leading at least one pessimistic wag to pen an “Epitaph for the Constitution” in which he (or she) imagined the issue leading to the collapse of the Union.

—Sarah Morgan Smith

Documents in this chapter are available separately by following the hyperlinks below:

  1. Excerpts from Ratification Documents of Virginia and New York
  2. (John C. Calhoun), Rough Draft of What is Called the South Carolina Exposition, December 19, 1828
  3. Senator Robert Y. Hayne, Remarks in Congress, January 25 and 27, 1830
  4. James Madison, On the Nullifying Doctrine, April 3, 1830
  5. Lyrics to Jackson and the Nullifiers, 1832
  6. Epitaph for the Constitution, 1832

Excerpts from Ratification Documents of Virginia and New York

Virginia Ratification Statement, June 26, 1788

We, the delegates of the people of Virginia, duly elected in pursuance of a recommendation from the General Assembly, and now met in Convention, having fully and freely investigated and discussed the proceedings of the Federal Convention, and being prepared as well as the most mature deliberation hath enabled us, to decide thereon, DO in the name and on behalf of the people of Virginia, declare and make known that the powers granted under the Constitution, being derived from the people of the United States may be resumed by them whensoever the same shall be perverted to their injury or oppression, and that every power not granted thereby remains with them and at their will. . . .

New York Ratification Statement, July 26, 1788

We, the delegates of the people of the state of New York, duly elected and met in Convention, having maturely considered the Constitution of the United States of America . . . and having also seriously and deliberately considered the present situation of the United States,—do declare and make known –

That all power is originally vested in, and consequently derived from, the people, and that government is instituted by them for their common interest, protection, and security.

That the enjoyment of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, are essential rights, which every government ought to respect and preserve.

That the powers of government may be reassumed by the people whensoever it shall become necessary to their happiness; that every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by the said Constitution clearly delegated to the Congress of the United States, or the departments of the government thereof, remains to the people of the several states, or to their respective state governments, to whom they may have granted the same; and that those clauses in the said Constitution, which declare that Congress shall not have or exercise certain powers, do not imply that Congress is entitled to any powers not given by the said Constitutions; but such clauses are to be construed either as exceptions to certain specified powers, or as inserted merely for greater caution. . . .

Back to Top

(John C. Calhoun), Rough Draft of What is Called the South Carolina Exposition, December 19, 1828

. . . [T]he present disordered state of our political system originated in the diversity of interests which exists in the country—a diversity recognized by the Constitution itself, and to which it owes one of its most distinguished and peculiar features—the division of the delegated powers between the State and General Governments. Our short experience, before the formation of the present Government, had conclusively shown that, while there were powers which in their nature were local and peculiar, and which could not be exercised by all, without oppression to some of the parts—so, also, there were those which, in their operation, necessarily affected the whole, and could not, therefore, be exercised by any of the parts, without affecting injuriously the others. On this different character, by which powers are distinguished in their geographical operation, our political system was constructed. Viewed in relation to them, to a certain extent we have a community of interests, which can only be justly and fairly supervised by concentrating the will and authority of the several States in the General Government; while, at the same time, the States have distinct and separate interests, over which no supervision can be exercised by the general power without injustice and oppression. Hence the division in the exercise of sovereign powers. . . . In the primary division of the sovereign powers, and in their exact and just classification, as stated, are to be found the first provisions or checks against the abuse of authority on the part of the absolute majority. The powers of the General Government are particularly enumerated and specifically delegated; and all powers not expressly delegated, or which are not necessary and proper to carry into effect those that are so granted, are reserved expressly to the States or the people. The Government is thus positively restricted to the exercise of those general powers that were supposed to act uniformly on all the parts—leaving the residue to the people of the States, by whom alone, from the very nature of these powers, they can be justly and fairly exercised, as has been stated.

Our system, then, consists of two distinct and independent Governments. The general powers, expressly delegated to the General Government, are subject to its sole and separate control; and the States cannot, without violating the constitutional compact, interpose their authority to check, or in any manner to counteract its movements, so long as they are confined to the proper sphere. So, also, the peculiar and local powers reserved to the States are subject to their exclusive control; nor can the General Government interfere, in any manner, with them, without violating the Constitution.

In order to have a full and clear conception of our institutions, it will be proper to remark that there is, in our system, a striking distinction between Government and Sovereignty. The separate governments of the several States are vested in their Legislative, Executive, and Judicial Departments; while the sovereignty resides in the people of the States respectively. The powers of the General Government are also vested in its Legislative, Executive, and Judicial Departments, while the sovereignty resides in the people of the several States who created it. But, by an express provision of the Constitution, it may be amended or changed by three-fourths of the States; and thus each State, by assenting to the Constitution with this provision, has modified its original right as a sovereign, of making its individual consent necessary to any change in its political condition; and, by becoming a member of the Union, has placed this important power in the hands of three-fourths of the States—in whom the highest power known to the Constitution actually resides. Not the least portion of this high sovereign authority resides in Congress, or any of the departments of the General Government. They are but the creatures of the Constitution, and are appointed but to execute its provisions; and, therefore, any attempt by all, or any of these departments, to exercise any power which, in its consequences, may alter the nature of the instrument, or change the condition of the parties to it, would be an act of usurpation.

It is thus that our political system, resting on the great principle involved in the recognized diversity of geographical interests in the community, has, in theory, with admirable sagacity, provided the most efficient check against their dangers. Looking to facts, the Constitution has formed the States into a community only to the extent of their common interests; leaving them distinct and independent communities as to all other interests, and drawing the line of separation with consummate skill, as before stated. It is manifest that, so long as this beautiful theory is adhered to in practice, the system, like the atmosphere, will press equally on all the parts. But reason and experience teach us that theory of itself, however excellent, is nugatory, unless there be means of efficiently enforcing it in practice—which brings under consideration the highly important question—What means are provided by the system for enforcing this fundamental provision? . . .

A system like ours, of divided powers, must necessarily give great importance to a proper system of construction; but it is perfectly clear that no rule of construction, however perfect, can, in fact, prescribe bounds to the operation of power. All such rules constitute, in fact, but an appeal from the minority to the justice and reason of the majority; and if such appeals were sufficient of themselves to restrain the avarice or ambition of those vested with power, then may a system of technical construction be sufficient to protect against the encroachment of power; but, on such supposition, reason and justice might alone be relied on, without the aid of any constitutional or artificial restraint whatever. Universal experience, in all ages and countries, however, teaches that power can only be restrained by power, and not by reason and justice; and that all restrictions on authority, unsustained by an equal antagonist power, must forever prove wholly inefficient in practice. . . . But that protection, which the minor interests must ever fail to find in any technical system of construction, may be found in the reserved rights of the States themselves, if they be properly called into action; and there only will they ever be found of sufficient efficacy. The right of protecting their powers results, necessarily, by the most simple and demonstrative arguments, from the very nature of the relation subsisting between the States and General Government. . . .

How is the remedy to be applied by the States? In this inquiry a question may be made—whether a State can interpose its sovereignty through the ordinary Legislature, but which the committee do not deem it necessary to investigate. It is sufficient that plausible reasons may be assigned against this mode of action, if there be one (and there is one) free from all objections. Whatever doubts may be raised as to the question—whether the respective Legislatures fully represent the sovereignty of the States for this high purpose, there can be none as to the fact that a Convention fully represents them for all purposes whatever. Its authority, therefore, must remove every objection as to form, and leave the question on the single point of the right of the States to interpose at all. When convened, it will belong to the Convention itself to determine, authoritatively, whether the acts of which we complain be unconstitutional; and, if so, whether they constitute a violation so deliberate, palpable, and dangerous, as to justify the interposition of the State to protect its rights. If this question be decided in the affirmative, the Convention will then determine in what manner they ought to be declared null and void within the limits of the State; which solemn declaration, based on her rights as a member of the Union, would be obligatory, not only on her own citizens, but on the General Government itself; and thus place the violated rights of the State under the shield of the Constitution. . . .

It may be objected, then—in the first place, that the right of the States to interpose rests on mere inference, without any express provision in the Constitution; and that it is not to be supposed—if the Constitution contemplated the exercise of powers of such high importance—that it would have been left to inference alone. In answer, the committee would ask, whether the power of the Supreme Court to declare a law unconstitutional is not among the very highest and most important that can be exercised by any department of the Government—and if any express provision can be found to justify its exercise? Like the power in question, it also rests on mere inference—but an inference so clear, that no express provision could render it more certain. The simple fact, that the Judges must decide according to law, and that the Constitution is paramount to the acts of Congress, imposes a necessity on the court to declare the latter void whenever, in its opinion, they come in conflict, in any particular case, with the former. So, also, in the question under consideration. The right of the States—even supposing it to rest on inference, stands on clearer and stronger grounds than that of the Court. In the distribution of powers between the General and State Governments, the Constitution professes to enumerate those assigned to the former, in whatever department they may be vested; while the powers of the latter are reserved in general terms, without attempt at enumeration. It may, therefore, constitute a presumption against the former—that the Court has no right to declare a law unconstitutional, because the power is not enumerated among those belonging to the Judiciary—while the omission to enumerate the power of the States to interpose in order to protect their rights—being strictly in accord with the principles on which its framers formed the Constitution, raises not the slightest presumption against its existence. Like all other reserved rights, it is to be inferred from the simple fact that it is not delegated—as is clearly the case in this instance.

Again—it may be objected to the power, that it is inconsistent with the necessary authority of the General Government—and, in its consequences, must lead to feebleness, anarchy, and finally disunion.

It is impossible to propose any limitation on the authority of governments, without encountering, from the supporters of power, this very objection of feebleness and anarchy. . . . It is, in fact, not at all surprising that, to a people unacquainted with the nature of liberty, and inexperienced in its blessings, all limitations on supreme power should appear incompatible with its nature, and as tending to feebleness and anarchy. . . . With us, however, who know from our own experience . . . that power can only be rendered useful and secure by being properly checked—it is, indeed, strange that any intelligent citizen should consider limitations on the authority of government incompatible with its nature—or should fear danger from any check properly lodged, which may be necessary to guard against usurpation or abuse, and protect the great and distinct interests of the country. That there are such interests represented by the States, and that the States are the only competent powers to protect them, has been sufficiently established; and it only remains, in order to meet the objection, to prove that, for this purpose, the States may be safely vested with the right of interposition. . . .

But it may be objected, that the exercise of the power would have the effect of placing the majority under the control of the minority. If the objection were well founded, it would be fatal. If the majority cannot be trusted, neither can the minority: and to transfer power from the former to the latter, would be but the repetition of the old error, in taking shelter under monarchy or aristocracy, against the more oppressive tyranny of an illy [sic] constructed republic. But it is not the consequence of proper checks to change places between the majority and minority. It leaves the power controlled still independent; as is exemplified in our political institutions, by the operation of acknowledged checks. The power of the Judiciary to declare an act of Congress, or of a State Legislature, unconstitutional, is, for its appropriate purpose, a most efficient check; but who that is acquainted with the nature of our Government ever supposed that it ever really vested (when confined to its proper object) a supreme power in the Court over Congress or the State Legislatures? Such was neither the intention, nor is it the effect. . . .

That there exists a case which would justify the interposition of this State, in order to compel the General Government to abandon an unconstitutional power, or to appeal to this high authority to confer it by express grant, the committee do not in the least doubt; and they are equally clear in the necessity of its exercise, if the General Government should continue to persist in its improper assumption of powers belonging to the State—which brings them to the last point they propose to consider—viz.: When would it be proper to exercise this high power?

If the committee were to judge only by the magnitude of the interests at stake, they would, without hesitation, recommend the call of a Convention without delay. But they deeply feel the obligation of respect for the other members of the confederacy, and the necessity of great moderation and forbearance in the exercise even of the most unquestionable right, between parties who stand connected by the closest and most sacred political compact. With these sentiments, they deem it advisable, after presenting the views of the Legislature in this solemn manner (if the body concur with the committee), to allow time for further consideration and reflection, in the hope that a returning sense of justice on the part of the majority, when they come to reflect on the wrongs which this and the other staple States have suffered, and are suffering, may repeal the obnoxious and unconstitutional acts—and thereby prevent the necessity of interposing the veto of the State.

The committee are further induced, at this time, to recommend this course, under the hope that the great political revolution, which will displace from power, on the 4th of March next, those who have acquired authority by setting the will of the people at defiance—and which will bring in an eminent citizen, distinguished for his services to his country, and his justice and patriotism, may be followed up, under his influence, with a complete restoration of the pure principles of our Government. But, in thus recommending delay, the committee wish it to be distinctly understood, that neither doubts of the rightful power of the State, nor apprehension of consequences, constitute the smallest part of their motives. They would be unworthy of the name of freemen—of Americans—of Carolinians, if danger, however great, could cause them to shrink from the maintenance of their constitutional rights. But they deem it preposterous to anticipate danger under a system of laws, where a sovereign party to the compact, which formed the Government, exercises a power which, after the fullest investigation, she conscientiously believes to belong to her under the guarantee of the Constitution itself—and which is essential to the preservation of her sovereignty. The committee deem it not only the right of the State, but her duty, under the solemn sanction of an oath, to interpose, if no other remedy be applied. They interpret the oath to defend the Constitution, not simply as imposing an obligation to abstain from violation, but to prevent it on the part of others. In their opinion, he is as guilty of violating that sacred instrument, who permits an infraction, when it is in his power to prevent it, as he who actually perpetrates the violation. The one may be bolder, and the other more timid—but the sense of duty must be weak in both.

With these views the committee are solemnly of the impression—if the present usurpations and the professed doctrines of the existing system be persevered in—after due forbearance on the part of the State—that it will be her sacred duty to interpose—a duty to herself—to the Union—to the present, and to future generations—and to the cause of liberty over the world, to arrest the progress of a usurpation which, if not arrested, must, in its consequences, corrupt the public morals and destroy the liberty of the country.

Back to Top

Senator Robert Y. Hayne, Remarks in Congress, January 25 and 27, 1830

. . . [W]e ask nothing of our Northern brethren but to “let us alone;” leave us to the undisturbed management of our domestic concerns, and the direction of our own industry, and we will ask no more. . . .

The honorable gentleman from Massachusetts [Mr. Webster] while he exonerates me personally from the charge, intimates that there is a party in the country who are looking to disunion. . . . Sir, when the gentleman provokes me to such a conflict, I meet him at the threshold. I will struggle while I have life, for our altars and our fire sides, and if God gives me strength, I will drive back the invader discomfited. Nor shall I stop there. If the gentleman provokes the war, he shall have war. Sir, I will not stop at the border; I will carry the war into the enemy’s territory, and not consent to lay down my arms, until I shall have obtained “indemnity for the past, and security for the future.” It is with unfeigned reluctance that I enter upon the performance of this part of my duty. I shrink almost instinctively from a course, however necessary, which may have a tendency to excite sectional feelings, and sectional jealousies. But, sir, the task has been forced upon me, and I proceed right onward to the performance of my duty; be the consequences what they may, the responsibility is with those who have imposed upon me this necessity. . . .

Who, then, Mr. President, are the true friends of the Union? Those who would confine the federal government strictly within the limits prescribed by the constitution—who would preserve to the States and the people all powers not expressly delegated—who would make this a federal and not a national Union—and who, administering the government in a spirit of equal justice, would make it a blessing and not a curse. And who are its enemies? Those who are in favor of consolidation; who are constantly stealing power from the States and adding strength to the federal government; who, assuming an unwarrantable jurisdiction over the States and the people, undertake to regulate the whole industry and capital of the country. . . .

The Senator from Massachusetts, in denouncing what he is pleased to call the Carolina doctrine, has attempted to throw ridicule upon the idea that a State has any constitutional remedy by the exercise of its sovereign authority against “a gross, palpable, and deliberate violation of the Constitution.” He called it “an idle” or “a ridiculous notion,” or something to that effect; and added, that it would make the Union “a mere rope of sand”. . . .

Sir, as to the doctrine that the Federal Government is the exclusive judge of the extent as well as the limitations of its powers, it seems to be utterly subversive of the sovereignty and independence of the States. It makes but little difference, in my estimation, whether Congress or the Supreme Court, are invested with this power. If the Federal Government, in all or any of its departments, are to prescribe the limits of its own authority; and the States are bound to submit to the decision, and are not to be allowed to examine and decide for themselves, when the barriers of the Constitution shall be overleaped, this is practically “a Government without limitation of powers;” the States are at once reduced to mere petty corporations, and the people are entirely at your mercy. I have but one word more to add. In all the efforts that have been made by South Carolina to resist the unconstitutional laws which Congress has extended over them, she has kept steadily in view the preservation of the Union, by the only means by which she believes it can be long preserved—a firm, manly, and steady resistance against usurpation. The measures of the Federal Government have, it is true, prostrated her interests, and will soon involve the whole South in irretrievable ruin. . . .

. . . It cannot be doubted, and is not denied, that before the formation of the constitution, each State was an independent sovereignty, possessing all the rights and powers appertaining to independent nations; nor can it be denied that, after the constitution was formed, they remained equally sovereign and independent, as to all powers, not expressly delegated to the Federal Government. This would have been the case even if no positive provision to that effect had been inserted in that instrument. But to remove all doubt it is expressly declared, by the 10th article of the amendment of the constitution, “that the powers not delegated to the States, by the constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”. . .

The whole form and structure of the Federal Government, the opinions of the framers of the Constitution, and the organization of the State Governments, demonstrate that though the States have surrendered certain specific powers, they have not surrendered their sovereignty. . . .

No doubt can exist, that, before the States entered into the compact, they possessed the right to the fullest extent, of determining the limits of their own powers—it is incident to all sovereignty. Now, have they given away that right, or agreed to limit or restrict it in any respect? Assuredly not. They have agreed, that certain specific powers shall be exercised by the Federal Government; but the moment that Government steps beyond the limits of its charter, the right of the States “to interpose for arresting the progress of the evil, and for maintaining within their respective limits the authorities, rights, and liberties, appertaining to them,” is as full and complete as it was before the Constitution was formed. It was plenary then, and never having been surrendered, must be plenary now.
. . .

The gentleman has made an eloquent appeal to our hearts in favor of union. Sir, I cordially respond to that appeal. I will yield to no gentleman here in sincere attachment to the Union,—but it is a Union founded on the Constitution, and not such a Union as that gentleman would give us, that is dear to my heart. If this is to become one great “consolidated government,” swallowing up the rights of the States, and the liberties of the citizen, “riding and ruling over the plundered ploughman, and beggared yeomanry,” the Union will not be worth preserving. Sir, it is because South Carolina loves the Union, and would preserve it forever, that she is opposing now, while there is hope, those usurpations of the Federal Government, which, once established, will, sooner or later, tear this Union into fragments. . . .

Back to Top

James Madison, On the Nullifying Doctrine, April 3, 1830

But there are doctrines espoused from which I am constrained to dissent. I allude particularly to the doctrine . . . that the States (perhaps their Governments) have, singly, a constitutional right to resist, and by force annul within itself, acts of the Government of the United States, which [they] deem unauthorized by the Constitution of the United States; although such acts be not within the extreme cases of oppression, which justly absolve the State from the Constitutional compact to which it is a party.

. . . [I]t is believed that by keeping in view distinctions, (an inattention to which is often observable in the ablest discussions of the subjects embraced in those proceedings) between the Governments of the States, and the States in the sense in which they were parties to the Constitution; between the several modes and objects of interposition against the abuses of power; and more especially between interpositions within the purview of the Constitution; and interpositions appealing from the Constitution to the rights of nature, paramount to all Constitutions; with these distinctions kept in view, and an attention always of explanatory use, to the views and arguments which are combatted, a confidence is felt that the Resolutions of Virginia as vindicated in the Report on them, are entitled to an exposition shewing a consistency in their parts, and an inconsistency of the whole with the doctrine under consideration.

On recurring to the printed Debates in the House of Delegates on the occasion, which were ably conducted, and are understood to have been, for the most part at least, revised by the Speakers; the tenor of them does not disclose any reference to a Constitutional right in an individual State, to arrest by force, the operation of a law of the United States. . . .

In this review I have not noticed the idea entertained by some, that disputes between the Government of the United States and those of the Individual States may and must be, adjusted by negotiation, as between independent powers.

Such a mode as the only one of deciding such disputes, would seem to be as expressly at variance with the language and provisions of the Constitution, as in a practical view, it is pregnant with consequences subversive of the Constitution. It may have originated in a supposed analogy to the negotiating process, in cases of disputes between separate branches or departments of the same Government: but the analogy does not exist. In the case of disputes between independent parts of the same Government, neither of them being able to consummate its pretensions, nor the Government to proceed without a co-operation of the several parts, necessity brings about an adjustment. In disputes between a State Government and the Government of the United States, the case is both theoretically and practically different; each party possessing all the Departments of an organized Government, Legislative, Executive & Judiciary; and having, each, a physical force at command.

This idea of an absolute separation and independence between the Government of the United States and the State Governments, as if they belonged to different nations alien to each other, has too often tainted the reasoning applied to constitutional questions. Another idea not less unsound and sometimes presenting itself is, that a cession of any part of the rights of sovereignty, is inconsistent with the nature of sovereignty, or at least a degradation of it. This would certainly be the case, if the cession was not both mutual and equal: but where there is both mutuality and equality, there is no real sacrifice on either side, each gaining as much as it grants; and the only point to be considered is the expediency of the compact, and that, to be sure, is a point that ought to be well considered. On this principle it is that treaties are admissible between independent powers, wholly alien to each other, altho’ privileges may be granted by each of the parties at the expense of its internal jurisdiction. On the same principle it is, that individuals entering into the social State, surrender a portion of their equal rights as men. If a part only made the surrender, it would be a degradation; but the surrenders being mutual, and each gaining as much authority over others as is granted to others over him, the inference is mathematical, that in theory nothing is lost by any; however different the result may be in practice.

I am now brought to the proposal which claims for the States respectively, a right to appeal against an exercise of power by the Government of the United States, which by the State is decided to be unconstitutional, to a final decision by three fourths of the parties to the Constitution. With every disposition to take the most favorable view of the expedient that a high respect for its Patrons could prompt, I am compelled to say that it appears to be either not necessary, or utterly inadmissible.

I take for granted it is not meant that pending the appeal, the offensive law of the United States is to be suspended within the State. Such an effect would necessarily, arrest its operation everywhere; a uniformity in the operation of the laws of the United States being indispensable, not only in a Constitutional and equitable, but, in most cases, in a practicable point of view; and a final decision adverse to that of the appellant State, would afford grounds and kinds of complaints that need not be traced.

But aside from those considerations, it is to be observed that the effect of the appeal will depend wholly on the form in which the case is proposed to the Tribunal which is to decide it.

If three fourths of the States can sustain the State in its decision, it would seem, that this extra constitutional course of proceeding might well be spared; inasmuch as two thirds can institute, and three fourths can effectuate, an amendment of the Constitution, which would establish a permanent rule of the highest authority, instead of a precedent of construction only.

If, on the other hand, three fourths are required to reverse the decision of the State, it will then be in the power of the smallest fraction over one fourth; of seven states for example out of twenty-four; to give the law to seventeen States, each of the seventeen having, as parties to the Constitutional compact, an equal right with each of the seven, to expound and insist on its exposition. That the seven might in particular cases be right and the seventeen wrong, is quite possible. But to establish a positive and permanent rule, giving such power, to such a minority, over such a majority, would overturn the first principle of a free Government, and in practice could not fail to overturn the Government itself.

It must be recollected that the Constitution was proposed to the people of the States, as a whole, and unanimously adopted as a whole; it being a part of the Constitution, that not less than three fourths should be competent to make any alteration in what had been unanimously agreed to. So great is the caution on this point, that in two cases, where peculiar interests were at stake, a majority even of three fourths are distrusted, and a unanimity required to make any change affecting those cases.

When the Constitution was adopted as a whole, it is certain there are many of its parts, which if proposed by themselves would have been promptly rejected. It is far from impossible, that every part of a whole would be rejected by a majority, and yet the whole be unanimously accepted. Constitutions will rarely, probably never, be formed without mutual concessions; without articles conditioned on and balancing each other. Is there a Constitution of a single State out of the twenty-four, that would bear the experiment of having its component parts, submitted to the people separately, and decided on according to their insulated merits?

What the fate of the Constitution of the United States would be, if a few States could expunge parts of it most valued by the great majority, and without which the great majority would never have agreed to it—can have but one answer.

The difficulty is not removed by limiting the process to cases of construction. How many cases of that sort, involving vital texts of the Constitution, have occurred? How many now exist? How many may hereafter spring up! How many might be plausibly created, if entitled to the privilege of a decision in the mode proposed.

Is it certain that the principle of that mode may not reach much farther than is contemplated? If a single State can of right require three fourths of its co-States, to overrule its exposition of the Constitution, because that proportion is authorized to amend it; is the plea less plausible, that as the Constitution was unanimously formed, it ought to be unanimously expounded.

The reply to all such suggestions must be, that the Constitution is a compact; that its text is to be expounded according to the provision for it, making part of the compact; and that none of the parties can rightfully violate the expounding provision more than any other part. When such a right accrues as may be the case, it must grow out of abuses of the Constitution, amounting to a release of the sufferers from their allegiance to it. . . .

Back to Top

Lyrics to “Jackson and the Nullifiers,” 1832

Why Yankee land is at a stand,

And all in consternation;

For in the South they make a rout,

And all about Nullification.

Sing Yankee doodle doodle doo,

Yankee doodle dandy,

Our foes are few, our hearts are true,

And Jackson is quite handy.

. . .

Nat Turner’s plan, the daring man,

May soon reach South Carolina,

Then would the black, their bodies hack,

Cæsar, Cato, Pomp, and Dinah,

Sing Yankee doodle doodle doo,

Yankee doodle dandy.

These Southern folks, may crack their jokes,

If notherners are so handy.

. . .

Their cotton bags, may turn to rags,

If Eastern men don’t buy them,

For all their gold, they may be sold,

Or their slaves may yet destroy them.

Sing Yankee doodle doodle doo,

Yankee doodle dandy,

If their cotton bags don’t find a sale,

Their cash wont be so handy.

When we our glorious Constitution form’d,

These Southern men declined it,

But soon they found they were unarmed,

And petitioned to sign it.

Sing Yankee doodle doodle doo,

Yankee doodle dandy,

Now like the snake torpid in a brake,

They think Nullification it is handy.

. . .

Our country’s cause, our country’s laws,

We ever will defend, Sir,

And if they do not gain applause,

My song was never penned, Sir.

So, sound the trumpet, beat the drum,

Play Yankee doodle dandy,

We Jackson boys will quickly come,

And be with our rifles handy.

. . .

Back to Top

Epitaph for the Constitution, 1832

Philadelphia Feb. 22, 1832.

Should the nullifiers succeed in their views of separation, and the Union be in consequence dissolved, the following will be an appropriate epitaph.


Disunited States, January 1, 1834.



To the ineffable joy of Despots, and Friends of Despotism,

throughout the world,

and the universal distress and mortification



of the noblest fabric of Government, ever devised by man,

The Constitution of the United States.

The fatal result of its dissolution was chiefly produced,

by the unceasing efforts of some of the most highly gifted men in the U.S.

whose labors, for a series of years have had this sinister tendency,

by the most exaggerated statements of the distress

and sufferings of South Carolina

(unjustly ascribed to the tariffs of duties on imports)

which, whatever they were, arose from the blighting, blasting, withering

effects of SLAVERY;

together with the depreciation of the great Staple of the State,


caused, in a great degree, by the depression of the Manufacturers of the

country, in 1816, 1817, 1818, 1819, 1820 & 1821, for want

of the protection of the government,


which overspread the land

with distress, and wretchedness, and bankruptcy;

and produced in three years more decay and ruin of national prosperity,

than a war of equal duration would have done.

It reduced the value of real estate in Pennsylvania in that space of time,

100,000,000 of dollars,

and in all of the grain-growing states probably $300,000,000.

It drove thousands and tens of thousands of Manufacturers to farming;

And thus, by the conversion of customers to rivals,


who “were driven to seek, in the uncultivated forests of the west, that

shelter of which they were deprived in their native states.”

Numbers of those depressed farmers

devoted themselves to the culture of Cotton;

hence production so far outran consumption, that our export of uplands,

which in 1819 was only 80,508,270 lbs.

rose in 1823 to 161,586,583 lbs and in 1827 to 279,169,217.

Although the distresses of South Carolina were charged

To the Tariffs of 1824 and 1828,

It has been established, beyond the possibility of doubt,

That there was at least as much distress in 1823, as the seceders complained

Of, to justify their secession, in 1832.

By the dissolution of the Union are profusely sowed the seeds of Servile,

Social, and Peloponnesian wars,

which will arm father against son, son against father, and brother

against brother; and make this (now) peaceful land

flow with rivers of blood,

transforming these tranquil scenes into objects of horror to superior beings,

rendering us tools and puppets to foreign nations,

and will probably subject the nation finally to some Caesar or Cromwell.

To produce the calamitous result to which this STONE bears record,

other causes almost equally contributed:

that is to say, the withering apathy, unworthy parsimony,

dire and fatuitous impolicy

as respected their own interests, together

with an utter destitution of regard for the public welfare, of a large


on whom the powers of

language were for twelve years exhausted in vain,

to excite them to make the few sacrifices necessary to dipel the errors

under which the southern states laboured, although

their fortunes and those of their

children, and the peace, prosperity, and union of their country

were at stake.


has rarely existed; and scarcely ever was a great cause so miserably

and pettifoggingly managed.

A more dire instance of infatuation, or one attended with more disastrous

consequences, is seldom to be met with in history.

The folly—perhaps the guilt would be a more proper term –

will carry its own punishment;

for losses will inevitably arise to the parties to an extent one hundred fold

beyond what would have operated as an infallible preventive.

Men worth hundreds of thousands of dollars,

who would not sacrifice

30, 20, 10, or even five dollars a year, to pay for paper

and printing to enlighten the public mind, to avert the calamities of their

country, and secure their own prosperity, will lose thousands;

and many of the body probably be swallowed up

in bankruptcy.

Here, then, at length, is the problem solved,


And, alas!


For no country ever had,

and it is utterly improbable any country ever will have, equal advantages

with those we enjoyed.

We started in our career a comparatively pure people,

with free and liberal forms of government;

have been blessed with boundless prosperity;

Our citizens were more enlightened than those of the nations 

of the old world.

We have had before our eyes most powerful admonitions:

the tremendous examples of anarchy,

of rapine, lust, and slaughter, in France, where hundreds of thousands

have been immolated to satanic revenge-infuriate hatred –

devouring cupidity—and wild ambition;

and where the nation,

in the vain search after liberty, exhausted

and wearied out by the rapine, and cruelty, and ambition

of a succession of monsters, finally sunk into torpid submission to the

uncontrolled domination of a single DESPOT;

and after a succession of sanguinary wars, in which

human blood flowed like water, recalled their ancient, expelled


Our WESTERN HEMISPHERE held out equal warnings.

Here, the various REPUBLICS,

as they are ludicrously styled, after a series of most

sanguinary struggles, marked with all the horrors and abominations

of which man in his most depraved state is capable, have

been the prey of a succession of

military usurpers,

whose career has been almost uniformly and

ingloriously closed, by the dagger, by poison, or by the musket.

To have shut our eyes and our ears

against such warnings, required a stupendous degree

of stupid blindness,

rarely equalled in the dark annals of the miserable animal, MAN.


Teacher Programs

Conversation-based seminars for collegial PD, one-day and multi-day seminars, graduate credit seminars (MA degree), online and in-person.

Our Core Document Collection allows students to read history in the words of those who made it. Available in hard copy and for download.