Friday, January 7, 2011

Rebecca Gratz & the Nullification Crisis of 1832

The Tariff of 1828 fell most heavily on the southern states. When the newly elected president, Andrew Jackson, did not move to reform or repeal the law, as expected, southern resentment grew. As an avenue to tax relief, South Carolinians developed a constitutional theory: sovereignty resided in the individual states rather than in the federal government, they argued, and therefore each state could nullify any federal law it found to be unconstitutional. The most radical of these nullifiers argued that there was no such thing as an American citizen, only state citizens.

The practical result of this interpretation would be the dismantling the United States, something the majority of Americans, looked upon with horror. Rebecca voiced these fears when she wrote, "I hope these southern Nullifiers will not break down the beautiful edifice their fathers erected to freedom...." Andrew Jackson saw nullification as treason.

In an effort to placate the nullifiers Congress passed the Tariff of 1832 which eased some of the burden and which had the support of about half of the southern states and all of the north. It was not good enough for South Carolina which in November 1832 used its new Ordinance of Nullification to nullify both the tariffs of 1828 and 1832, effective February 1, 1833. The state then began military preparations to repel federal intervention.

Rebecca's friend Washington Irving was travelling in South Carolina at this time and visited William C. Preston, an old friend and a vocal nullifier. Together they dined with the governor of the state, whom Irving had also known in his youth. In a letter to his brother Peter, Irving wrote, "It is really lamentable to see such a fine set of gallant fellows as these leading nullifiers are, so madly in the wrong."

At this point the state government was about to nullify the two tariffs, which Gov. Hamilton insisted was a "peaceable redress." As Irving was leaving, Hamilton invited him to come back soon. "Oh, yes," Irving, who had either a better grasp of reality or less reason to be hypocritical about it, replied, "I'll come with the first troops."

On Dec. 10, Andrew Jackson responded to the nullification of the tariffs by ordering naval ships to South Carolina and threatening to send in troops. A week later, Rebecca Gratz wrote to her sister-in-law in Kentucky: "Oh how I tremble lest American blood should be spilt by American hands."

In February Congress passed the bill authorizing the President to send soldiers into South Carolina and also a reform tariff, crafted to be more to the Carolinians' liking. (Jackson had rattled his saber but had also been the first to suggest the reform tariff.) At this point the nullifiers realized that they did not really want to call Jackson's bluff about military intervention, nullified their state nullification ordinance and accepted the reform tariff. The crisis was over, and for the moment everybody felt they had won.

But many Americans, like Rebecca, saw in the nullification ordeal the spectre of future civil war. Washington Irving felt that the Southerners' braggadocio-laden rhetoric during the crisis had offended those in other parts of the country who would otherwise have been sympathetic to redressing their grievances. Regionalism, already strong, was further exacerbated, and Americans in the north and west must have fearfully wondered: if the planters of South Carolina, among the wealthiest men in the country, were willing to destabilize the nation for their own gain, what would they do if they felt that slavery, the institution on which their way of life was built, might be taken from them?

(Rebecca's letter is in Letters of Rebecca Gratz, edited by David Phillipson. Material about Washington Irving is from The Life and Letters of Washington Irving, edited by Pierre M. Irving. I synthesized information about the Crisis from many sources; as with Indian Removal, I have again squeezed a complex subject into the dimensions of a blog post. Fortunately, there is plenty of information about nullification in print and on the internet for those interested in learning more.)

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