“Nullification” and the Primacy of the Federal Government

In 1828, responding to the “Tariff of Abominations,” South Carolinian John Calhoun composed an essay entitled “Exposition and Protest” in which he argued that states had the right to “nullify” or cancel out laws of the Federal or–in Calhoun’s term “general”–government.

In 1832, South Carolina’s legislature voted to nullify the tariff. The “Exposition and Protest” served as the philosophical basis for the action. In response, Congress passed and President Andrew Jackson ¬†signed the Force Bill, which authorized the Army to enforce the tariff. ¬†Calhoun’s ideas would later fuel calls for the southern states’ attempts to secede from the United States.

The following is a brief excerpt from Calhoun’s essay.

If it be conceded, as it must be by every one who is the least conversant with our institutions, that the sovereign powers delegated are divided between the General and State Governments, and that the latter bold their portion by the same tenure as the former, it would seem impossible to deny to the States the right of deciding on the infractions of their powers, and the proper remedy to be applied for their correction. The right of judging, in such cases, is an essential attribute of sovereignty, of which the States cannot be divested without losing their sovereignty itself, and being reduced to a subordinate corporate condition. In fact, to divide power, and to give to one of the parties the exclusive right of judging of the portion allotted to each, is, in reality, not to divide it at all; and to reserve such exclusive right to the General Government (it matters not by what department to be exercised, is to convert it, in fact, into a great consolidated government, with unlimited powers, and to divest the States, in reality, of all their rights, It is impossible to understand the force of terms, and to deny so plain a conclusion. The opposite opinion can be embraced only on hasty and imperfect views of the relation existing between the States and the General Government. But the existence of the right of judging of their powers, so clearly established from the sovereignty of States, as clearly implies a veto or control, within its limits, on the action of the General Government, on contested points of authority; and this very control is the remedy which the Constitution has provided to prevent the encroachments of the General Government on the reserved rights of the States; and by which the distribution of power, between the General and State Governments, may be preserved for ever inviolable, on the basis established by the Constitution. It is thus effectual protection is afforded to the minority, against the oppression of the majority….

Source and full text

Questions to Consider:

  1. What, according to Calhoun, is the proper relationship between the federal (or “general”) government and the state governments?
  2. According to Calhoun, what gives states have the power to “nullify” federal laws?