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. (Madison later disavowed nullification.)

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.

Anonymous, Dissolution of the Union (Philadelphia: 1832), 21-24.

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.


Study Questions

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?


  1. Latin phrase meaning, “Thus passes the glory of the world.”