On January 13, 1833, President Andrew Jackson wrote Vice President Martin Van Buren expressing his opposition to South Carolina’s defiance of federal authority. He closed with the assertion, “nothing must be permitted to weaken our government at home or abroad.”
The Nullification Crisis of 1832-33 erupted the previous November when South Carolina nullified a federal tariff that favored Northern manufacturing over Southern agriculture. Complicating matters, Jackson’s vice president at that time, South Carolina native John C. Calhoun, firmly believed states had the right to overrule federal laws. South Carolinians agreed and planned to use armed force to prevent duty collection in the state after February 1, 1833.
Calhoun developed the idea of nullification—first put forth in the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798—as a strategy for the South to preserve slavery in the face of a Northern majority in Congress. His support of the measure, disclosed midway through his term, was not shared by President Jackson who feared nullification’s power to split the Union. This difference of opinion permanently distanced the president and vice president.
The crisis was resolved without bloodshed in March 1833. Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun, who had left the vice presidency at the end of 1832 to serve South Carolina in the Senate, drafted a reduced tariff agreement that pacified South Carolina while allowing the Federal government to stand firm. On December 10, 1832, Jackson responded to South Carolina’s recalcitrance with a Proclamation to the people of South Carolina. Considered the greatest state paper of the era, Jackson promised to uphold the federal tariff and warned “disunion by armed force is treason.”
Calhoun represented his home state until his death in 1850. His final years in office were spent trying to unite the South against attacks on slavery.
- See the entry for the Nullification Proclamation in the Library’s Primary Documents in American History Web guide series.
- Explore the papers of Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren to learn more about this period in American history. One item of interest found in the Van Buren Papers is a typescript of Jackson’s letter of January 13, 1833 discussing the nullification crisis.
- Search the Words and Deeds in American History: Selected Documents Celebrating the Manuscript Division’s First 100 Years collection on Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, Henry Clay, or John Quincy Adams to learn more about national politics in the early nineteenth century. Calhoun’s final speech in the Senate, made during debates over the Compromise of 1850, is featured in this collection.
- A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875 contains a variety of documents pertaining to the congressional careers of Jackson, Van Buren, Clay, and Calhoun. Locate documents by searching the collection on the politician’s name.