The Civil War Connections Blog

Causality or Influence: Nullification Revisited

In Mitch’s post concerning John C. Calhoun’s home in Charleston, South Carolina, it was asserted that nullification, a method advanced by Calhoun to invalidate the Tariff of Abominations, ultimately grew into secession.  Having written a term paper recently on Calhoun’s political thought, I cannot help myself but tease out the connection that Mitch presents and, to a degree, respectfully disagree.  Like most politically polarized movements, ideas and philosophies are often latched onto and stretched to and fro until the parameters once established by the original author fit a set of circumstances foreign to the initial theory.  Such is the case with Calhoun’s method of nullification and reasons for secession later advanced on the eve of the Civil War.  In this post I will compare Calhoun’s conception of nullification to the grounds for secession that Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy, outlined in the infamous “Cornerstone Speech.”  I would encourage Mitch to breathe a sigh of relief, however, as I only wish to argue that the connection between nullification and secession is not a simple, straight-forward causality but an influence perverted and advanced by secessionist thinkers.  As historians often do, I would like to present a friendly exposition on another historian’s assertion to shed a bit more light on an extremely complicated issue.

John C. Calhoun

John C. Calhoun. Library of Congress.

The most important point to take away from my post is that John C. Calhoun was not an advocate for disunion.  Though he hailed from South Carolina, the future den of secession, he should not be cast in the mold of rebellion that we too often simplify when considering the Confederate motivations that manifested after his death.  Calhoun instead searched for a method to correct for a defect in the Lockean conception of majority rule in order to preserve the union; a deficiency that he blamed for the oppression of liberty which led to the nullification crisis.  As John Niven explains in John C. Calhoun and the Price of Union, as the tariff controversy of 1828 progressed, Calhoun initially attempted to remain as neutral as possible in order to preserve his potential for a presidential run in the future.  Nevertheless, this attempt was dashed as Southerners in slave-holding states began to link the proposed tariff with the destruction of their agricultural system; a realization that sparked cries for secession.  These very cries, however, served as the motivating factor to break Calhoun’s neutrality and force him to not only take a position on the issue, but strike a blow against his national political career.[i]

In “The Fort Hill Address” delivered in 1831, Calhoun advanced two principle positions that would save the nation from disunion: a limit of executive power according to the Constitution and the establishment of a concurrent majority (an institution that he later terms and explains in depth in his Disquisition on Government).  Concerning ourselves primarily with the latter, Calhoun asserts that “when [the interests of the people] are dissimilar, so that the law that may benefit one portion may be ruinous to another, it would be contrary, unjust and absurd to subject them to its will.”  This is the conflict between majority rule and the function of consent in a legitimate government to which I alluded earlier.  Calhoun recognized, as H. Lee Cheek Jr. articulates in Calhoun and Popular Rule, the tension between these Lockean institutions which had the potential to quash the liberty of a minority.  In Calhoun’s Disquisition, he takes the  role of consent in legitimating political power very seriously; the consent of “each interest” is ultimately required “either to put or to keep the government in action” with the establishment of a concurrent majority. To provide a simplified definition, the concurrent majority was Calhoun’s method of preserving local interests by requiring each locality to agree with proposed legislation.  Without the approval of all parties, an action taken by the government would be deemed an infringement on liberty; legitimacy in Calhoun’s system was thus only achieved by unanimity of consent.[ii]

The necessity of consent laid the foundation for Calhoun’s proposal of nullification.  If one state were to deem a federal law undesirable, it could be rendered null, or void, accordingly.  The doctrine of nullification, however, was meant to be a check on government, not a force to destroy it.  If anything, Calhoun broke his state of neutrality and proposed nullification to first and foremost prevent secession.  He was not what Thomas Branch, a delegate from Petersburg, referred to as a “fire-eater” during the Virginia secession debates.  Fire-eaters were pro-slavery individuals who advocated secession beginning in the 1850’s (notably after Calhoun’s death).  Though they no doubt adopted much of Calhoun’s rhetoric (such as the proposition that all men were not created equal), they did not advance the spirit of nullification in regard to secession as Calhoun understood it.  These individuals were extremists who exaggerated the influence of abolitionist-oriented Black Republicans to spark fear in suspect Southerners.

Thus is the difference between what Manisha Sinha terms a “Calhounite” in The Counter-revolution of Slavery and a fire-eater.  Now let’s turn our attention to Stephens’ “Cornerstone Speech” and examine the influence, and deviation, from the spirit of nullification.  It is impossible to deny that the threat of the tariff of 1828 was forgotten by secessionists in 1861.  In the speech, Stephens’ first step toward creating a legitimate constitutional government in the Confederacy was to eliminate the use of tariffs: “The question of building up class interests, or fostering one branch of industry to the prejudice of another under the exercise of the revenue power, which gave us so much trouble under the old constitution, is put at rest forever under the new.”  However, his focus on tariffs is one of the shortest sections of the “Cornerstone Speech.”  He instead devotes the bulk of it, as expected, to what he terms the cornerstone of the Confederacy: “the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man…that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.”  Though this was also an idea advanced by Calhoun (an assertion I hope to expand upon in a future blog post) it was not inspired by the attempted nullification of the Tariff of Abominations.  Stephens focuses on what he deems the integral misstep of the founders: the absence of an affirmation of slavery in the Constitution.  As he bluntly states, the premise of equality that the founders advanced was predicated on “ideas…[that] were fundamentally wrong.”  Instead, Stephens proposes a superior government founded on truth: “…not a single one of the medical profession, living at the time of the announcement of the truths made by [Harvey], admitted them. Now, they are universally acknowledged. May we not, therefore, look with confidence to the ultimate universal acknowledgment of the truths upon which our system rests? It is the first government ever instituted upon the principles in strict conformity to nature, and the ordination of Providence, in furnishing the materials of human society.”[iv]

To sum up the immense amount of political theory that I have just presented, John C. Calhoun was not a secessionist.  In his view, nullification, an idea which harkened back to Jefferson’s Kentucky Resolution, was the key to preserving the union while maintaining Southern economic and social institutions.  He was not a fire-eater, an extremist who adopted his logic concerning the connection between race and liberty yet rejected the unifying force of nullification.  Alexander Stephens did have nullification on his mind as he drafted the “Cornerstone Speech,” but ultimately placed emphasis on the role of slavery as the driving force behind secession.  In conclusion, a connection did exist between the spirit of nullification and the reasoning behind secession, but it was not forged from the logic of Calhoun in 1831.  Though many may jump to the conclusion that both nullification and secession are forms of rebellion, it is important to pause and consider these methods in terms of the political theory advanced by those who proposed them.  The complexities of this topic are truly immense and deserve far more exposition then I have granted them in this post.  If you are interested in Calhoun and his political theories or Alexander Stephens and the “Cornerstone Speech,” please visit the sites or peruse the books listed in the following endnotes.

[Portrait of Vice President Alexander Stephens, officer of the Confederate States Government]

Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy. Library of Congress.


[i] John Niven, John C. Calhoun and the Price of Union (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988), pp. 178-179.

[ii] Niven, John C. Calhoun and the Price of Union, p. 181-182; John C. Calhoun, The Fort Hill Address, (http://www.thevrwc.org/Calhoun.pdf, 1831), pp.3; H. Lee Cheek, Jr., Calhoun and Popular Rule (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2001), pp. 118; John C. Calhoun, “The Disquisition on Government” in American Intellectual Tradition: Vol. 1. Ed. David A. Hollinger et. al. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 458, 460.

[iii] Thomas Branch, “Fourteenth Day of the Convention,” Virginia Secession Convention, (University of Richmond: http://collections.richmond.edu/secession/documents/index.html?keyword=fire+eaters&element=p&formType=Keyword&Submit=&start=1&order=date&direction=ascending&id=pb.1.330, 1861).

[iv] Manisha Sinha, The Counter-revolution of Slavery, (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2000), pp. 34; Alexander Stephens, “The Cornerstone Speech,” (Teaching American History: http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/index.asp?documentprint=76, 1861).