Preserving the union, 1830s style
It was on this day 189 years ago that it began, in South Carolina.
A special state convention voted 136 to 26 to declare that certain tariffs imposed by acts of Congress in 1828 and 1832 “unauthorized by the constitution of the United States, and violate the true meaning and intent thereof and are null, void, and no law, nor binding upon this State, its officers or citizens.”1
The theory that a state could simply declare a federal law invalid and inapplicable had been championed by then-Vice President John C. Calhoun — to the consternation of then-President Andrew Jackson.2
The conflict that resulted was called the Nullification Crisis3 — and it was the first real test of both the staying power of the Union of states and of the notion of federal law as the supreme law of the land.
That concept is written into the Constitution of the United States: “This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.”4
And in response to South Carolina’s attempt to walk away from this provision, Jackson asked for — and Congress passed — the Force Act. And it did just what its popular name suggests: it authorized the use of force to compel any state to comply.5
Now since war didn’t break out in the 1830s, it should be pretty clear that the crisis was resolved in some other way. In fact, a compromise was eventually reached for a tariff bill more acceptable to the planters of the south, and passed the same day as the Force Act.6
So… just a quirky bit of American history, right? Nothing for a genealogist to be concerned about…
The Legal Genealogist begs to differ.
Every single event in the lifetimes of our ancestors may have impacted our ancestors, may have involved them and their lives, directly or indirectly.
As I learned when I did a search for the name of a fourth great grandfather in the newspapers of his lifetime.
David Baker was a veteran of the Revolutionary War, who’d served with the Third Virginia Regiment from 1776-1778.7 He and his family settled in what became Burke County, North Carolina, where — in 1797 — he became a justice of the peace.8
And he was not a fan of the notion of nullification.
Not one bit.
According to a report in a Washington, D.C., newspaper, there was a meeting in Burke County in October 1832 where folks considered whether North Carolina should join South Carolina in resisting the tariff acts. After one speaker advocated for nullification, an older man rose from his seat:
David Baker Esq., a Revolutionary soldier, venerable for his age and unblemished character, rose, with a staff in each hand to support his tottering frame, and requested permission to address a few words to his fellow-citizens… After premising that he was probably the oldest man in the house, he went on to say that he enlisted under Washington, in the first regiment raised in Virginia in the beginning of our Revolutionary struggle; and … in those days when men attempted to resist the laws of their Government they were publicly tarred and feathered; and, continued the venerable old patriarch, he feared it must come to that here! When this was uttered, the whole audience, as if by one impulse, united in a most deafening applause; and the old veteran sat down, amidst the enthusiastic cheers of his fellow-citizens.9
That’s why we look at every single event in their lifetimes.
Including when one of my own had the courage to stand in favor of the Union, and say no to nullification.
Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “Saying no to nullification,” The Legal Genealogist (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : posted 24 Nov 2021).
- “South Carolina Ordinance of Nullification, November 24, 1832,” Avalon Project, Yale Law School (https://avalon.law.yale.edu/ : accessed 24 Nov 2021). See also “South Carolina Nullification Ordinance,” digital images, National Archives Catalog, U.S. National Archives (https://www.archives.gov : accessed 24 Nov 2021). ↩
- See “Nullification Proclamation: Primary Documents in American History,” Research Guides, Library of Congress (https://guides.loc.gov/ : accessed 24 Nov 2021). ↩
- See generally ibid., including the links provided. ↩
- U.S. Constitution, Article VI. ↩
- “An Act further to provide for the collection of duties on imports,” 4 Stat. 632 (2 March 1833). ↩
- See “An Art to modify the act of the fourteenth of July, one thousand eight hundred and thirty-two, and all other acts imposing duties on imports,” 4 Stat. 629 (2 March 1833). ↩
- See Compiled Military Service Record, David Baker, Corp., 3rd Virginia Regiment, Revolutionary War; Compiled Service Records of Soldiers who Served in the American Army During the Revolutionary War, microfilm publication M881, Roll 951 (Washington, D.C. : National Archives Trust Board, 1976). ↩
- Minute Book, Burke County, North Carolina, Court of Pleas & Quarter Sessions, 23 January 1797; North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh. ↩
- Washington, D.C. Daily Intelligencer, 25 October 1832, p.3, col. 2, GenealogyBank.com (by permission). ↩