Introduction

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.


Jackson and the nullifiers . . . Printed and sold, wholesale and retail, at 257 Hudson-street, and 138 Division-street. 1832. 1832. Library of Congress, https://goo.gl/xVTerL.


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 plan1, 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.

. . .

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?

Footnotes

  1. A reference to Nat Turner’s Rebellion; see Chapter 12.