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Webster, Calhoun, and the Nullification Crisis

Webster, Calhoun, and the Nullification Crisis
AI visualization of a tariff inspector collecting duties in 1832.

This week's video covers Daniel Webster's apparent change of opinion on the compact theory of the U.S. Constitution – an idea that he supported in his youth, when he, along with most New Englanders, opposed the War of 1812 and made threatening noises about secession. By the time of the Nullification Crisis, he denied that the states were sovreign and claimed that the Union had been created by the people of the U.S. en masse, not by the people of the several states.

Since his 1833 speech was in response to remarks by Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, it's worth looking in greater detail at what Calhoun had said in reaction to President Andrew Jackson's push for the Force Bill, which would have collected the so-called Tariff of Abominations (which had been passed during his predecessor John Quincy Adams's administration) by force if necessary. South Carolina had called a convention to declare the tariff null and void within its boundaries. From H.W. Brands's account in Heirs of the Founders: The Epic Rivalry of Henry Clay, John Calhoun and Daniel Webster, the Second Generation of American Giants:

Calhoun accused Jackson of double-crossing the South, which had looked to him to solve the tariff problem. Southerners, including South Carolinians, had turned out in great numbers and carried Jackson to victory in the two elections. “But little did the people of Carolina dream that the man whom they were thus striving to elevate to the highest seat of power would prove so utterly false to all their hopes.”
The force bill was abhorrent in the unfettered powers it would confer on the executive, Calhoun said. “It puts at the disposal of the president the army and navy, and the entire militia of the country.” And to what purpose? “To make war against one of the free and sovereign members of this confederation, which the bill proposes to deal with not as a state but as a collection of banditti or outlaws, thus exhibiting the impious spectacle of this government, the creature of the states, making war against the power to which it owes its existence.”
The force bill was egregiously unconstitutional, Calhoun said. “This bill proceeds on the ground that the entire sovereignty of this country belongs to the American people, as forming one great community, and regards the states as mere fractions or counties, and not as an integral part of the Union, having no more right to resist the encroachments of this government than a county has to resist the authority of a state.” The bill declared war on South Carolina—indeed, worse than war, for it set an organized force against an unorganized people. “It decrees a massacre of her citizens!” It gave the chief executive powers no man should ever wield. “It authorizes the president, or even his deputies, when they suppose the law to be violated, without the intervention of a court or jury to kill without mercy or discrimination!”
Supporters of the force bill declared that the law must be enforced. “The law must be enforced!” Calhoun repeated scornfully. What they meant was: “The imperial edict must be executed.” Sixty years earlier Britain’s Lord North had said the tea tax must be enforced, and he had driven the American colonies to rebellion. The president was doing the same to the Southern states.
Backers of the force bill said the Union must be preserved. “And how is it proposed to preserve the Union? By force! Does any man in his senses believe that this beautiful structure, this harmonious aggregate of states produced by the joint consent of all, can be preserved by force?” There was not a chance. “Its very introduction will be certain destruction of this federal Union. No, no; you cannot keep the states united in their constitutional and federal bonds by force. Force may indeed hold the parts together, but such union would be the bond between master and slave, a union of exaction on one side and of unqualified obedience on the other.”
Calhoun leveled a warning. “Disguise it as you might, the controversy is one between power and liberty, and I will tell the gentlemen who are opposed to me that strong as might be the love of power on your side, the love of liberty is still stronger on ours.” He acknowledged that his side lacked numbers and arms; the odds were fearful against them. Yet this made their duty all the clearer and potentially more rewarding. “To discharge successfully this high duty requires the highest qualities, moral and intellectual, and should we perform it with a zeal and ability in proportion to its magnitude, instead of being mere planters, our section will become distinguished for its patriots and statesmen.” Failure to oppose the president would exact a terrible cost. “If we yield to the steady encroachment of power, the severest and most debasing calamity and corruption will overspread the land.”

The crux of Webster's rebuttal is mostly covered in the video, but here's a bit more on his denunciation of the compact theory of the constitution in which he had once shared – ironically, while opposing a war.

A compact or a confederation—like that of the Articles of Confederation—acted upon states. But the Constitution acted upon the people as individuals. “This government may punish individuals for treason and all other crimes in the code, when committed against the United States. It has power, also, to tax individuals, in any mode and to any extent, and it possesses the further power of demanding from individuals military service. Nothing, certainly, can more clearly distinguish a government from a confederation of states than the possession of these powers. No closer relations can exist between individuals and any government.”
The Constitution granted Congress the power to declare war. Under Calhoun’s theory, the states should be able to nullify war declarations as easily as any other congressional acts, Webster said. “Can any thing be more preposterous?” Half the country go to war, and the other half abstain?
“The truth is, Mr. President, and no ingenuity of argument, no subtlety of distinction, can evade it, the people of the United States are one people. They are one in making war, and one in making peace. They are one in regulating commerce, and one in laying duties of impost. The very end and purpose of the Constitution was to make them one people in these particulars, and it has effectually accomplished its object.”
The framers had made their purpose patent at the start. “How can any man get over the first words of the Constitution itself—‘We, the people of the United States, do ordain and establish this constitution.” These words must cease to be part of the Constitution, they must be obliterated from the parchment on which they are written, before any human ingenuity or human argument can remove the popular basis on which that Constitution rests and turn the instrument into a mere compact between sovereign states.”

Of course, many observers have since pointed out that the Constitution's preamble has no legal force, that the Constitution took effect after nine states ratified it – but only in those nine states, until the other states joined them – and that North Carolina and Rhode Island didn't even ratify it until November 1789 and May 1790, respectively – well after George Washington had taken his oath of office as president.

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