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James Madison.

[Detail] James Madison.

Madison in Retirement: Nullification Crisis

In 1832, a state convention in South Carolina issued an ordinance declaring the tariffs of 1828 and 1832 to be null and void after months of threatening nullification. Proponents of nullification cited the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798-99 as one factor legitimizing a state's right to nullify federal law. Both proponents and opponents of nullification called on Madison, as author of the Virginia Resolution, to explain his position.

Madison received a letter commenting on the crisis that prompted John C. Calhoun and prominent state officials to call for nullification. In response, Madison wrote to Mathew Carey on July 27, 1831 expressing his opposition to the actions taken by South Carolina.

In later correspondence to John Townsend (October 18, 1831), Madison responds to accusations that Jefferson had justified nullification in the Kentucky Resolution of 1798. The question of secession arose in a letter to Nicholas Trist, in which Madison referred to both the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, pointing out the differences in the doctrines expressed by Jefferson and himself from those of South Carolina's Ordinance of Nullification.

  • According to Madison, how grave was the crisis?
  • Why did he fear that the crisis could be a forerunner of war?
  • On what grounds did Madison argue in the Townsend letter that Jefferson would have opposed South Carolina's nullification ordinance?
  • From Madison's perspective, how were the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions being misconstrued?

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