On Dec. 20, 150 years ago, South Carolina left the union, soon followed by other Southern states, to form a confederacy. They did so in reaction to the election of Abraham Lincoln as president and his views against the expansion of slavery. The North went to war to restore the union.
Conflict between the North and South had been brewing since the nation’s founding. The Southern slave-based agrarian economy, and the increasingly industrialized and entrepreneurial North, nearly came to blows in 1832 when South Carolina “nullified” an act of Congress which imposed a tariff to protect Northern industry from European competition. The tariff was opposed in the South where there was no industry to protect, but where it raised prices Southerners paid for the imported products they purchased from abroad.
Did an individual state have the right to nullify an act of Congress? The president at the time, Andrew Jackson, didn’t think so. Sen. Daniel Webster didn’t think so either, and in a debate over the issue he declared that our national union would amount to nothing but “a rope of sand” if states were allowed to choose which laws applied to them.
At Jackson’s urging, Congress passed the “Force Bill” authorizing military enforcement of the tariff law. Jackson threatened to personally lead the U.S. Army to South Carolina where he promised to hang the nullification leader, Sen. John C. Calhoun. Civil war was averted when Congress amended the tariff sufficiently for South Carolina to rescind its act of nullification. Defiant Carolina, however, proceeded to “nullify” the then irrelevant Force Bill to demonstrate continued belief in the “doctrine of nullification.”
Some still believe that a state can nullify a federal law, and apparently some who do are serving in the Montana Legislature. It is their view that states voluntarily entered into the union, but didn’t give up self-governing powers in doing so. Therefore, they argue, states are independent to follow or reject the laws of the United States, and are ultimately free to secede from the union, just as they voluntarily joined it when they agreed to the Constitution.
A system in which state laws have supremacy over national laws is a confederation, not a union. In our early history, Americans experimented with such a government under Articles of Confederation. Leaders including George Washington and Alexander Hamilton feared that the constantly squabbling and dysfunctional confederation would fall apart, resulting in chaos and conflict. Under their leadership, therefore, the Constitution of the United States was adopted, according to its preamble, “to form a more perfect union.”
It must be noted that founders Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were concerned that the Constitution granted too much centralized power; they held the separatist belief that states should be able to nullify federal law. Later, South Carolina and other Southern states followed this line of thinking where it inevitably led, which was to states breaking their original compact with the constitutional union and forming a confederacy.
Lincoln wouldn’t allow the destruction of the United States any more than Jackson, and so the Civil War was fought forcing the seceding states back into the union, this time without slaves.
As we stand before the flag of our country and recite our national oath, we citizens of the United States pledge our allegiance to one nation which is indivisible. The Civil War settled the destructive and incendiary issue of nullification a century and a half ago. The new nullifiers are playing with fire.
Bob Brown is a former Republican Montana secretary of state and state senate president.
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