In 1833, America was on the brink of civil war. Displeased with the “Tariff of Abominations,” an 1828 bill taxing imported goods over 60% on average, South Carolina threatened nullification and secession. Vice President John C. Calhoun, a native South Carolinian, resigned to aid his state in the effort. Calhoun’s former boss, President Andrew Jackson, responded in his usual understated way, declaring, “John Calhoun, if you secede from my nation, I will secede your head from the rest of your body.”
The whole thing worked itself out and ended peacefully. The Tariff of 1833 introduced a plan to reduce import taxes and temporarily ended hostilities between the federal government and the South.
This little episode became known as the Nullification Crisis, and its effects, though felt most strongly in the 1860s, linger today. What Calhoun and South Carolina were asserting was the right of individual states to declare a bill unconstitutional and, therefore, unenforceable within their borders. It raised the question: how much autonomy did individual states retain as members of the union?
It’s a good question to ask, especially as the controversy over the border unfolds in Texas.
The Tariff of Abominations was a protective tariff passed to protect American manufacturing – contained almost exclusively in the north – from cheap imported European goods. There had been protective tariffs before, but none as punitive or blatantly favorable to one section of the country at such a cost to the other.
Southern states, South Carolina in particular, got nothing out of the deal. The tariff meant they would pay more for goods they did not produce while making it more difficult for European buyers to pay for cotton and other exports constituting the backbone of Southern economy.
On top of the economic harm, Calhoun and South Carolina asserted that the tariff was unconstitutional. The federal government could levy taxes to raise revenue, but there was no authority to pass protective trade legislation.
Calhoun anonymously authored the “South Carolina Exposition and Protest” while serving as Vice President and laid out his arguments for nullification, drawing heavily from James Madison’s and Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, respectively. Jefferson wrote that if the federal government takes powers beyond its assigned authority, “the several states who formed that instrument (the federal government), being sovereign and independent, have the unquestionable right to judge of its infraction; and that a nullification, by those sovereignties, of all unauthorized acts done under colour of that instrument, is the rightful remedy.”
Calhoun, Jefferson, and Madison all agreed that the states did not surrender their sovereignty by forming the Union. They simply formed a compact and delegated powers to a federal body. In their minds, the states that formed the federal government can and should police federal abuses. If the states had no way to halt the federal government’s “infractions,” Calhoun wrote, they would be “reduced to a subordinate corporate condition.” Giving the federal government the sole discretion to limit its own power is to “convert [the federal government] into a great consolidated government, with unlimited powers, and to divest the States, in reality, of all their rights.”
With this in mind, let’s turn our attention to Texas. If Calhoun, Jefferson, and Madison were right that the states can and should prevent federal sins of commission, essentially federal overreach, then it stands to reason that federal sins of omission are just as nullifiable.
Article IV Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution states that the U.S. shall protect every state from invasion. I do not know the textbook definition of invasion, but millions of unvetted foreigners crossing our borders each year just might qualify. The federal government not only refuses to stop the crossings but sues states that take action. A recent Supreme Court decision siding with the federal government against Texas shows why we should not rely on the federal government alone to hold itself accountable and respect the states’ rights.
But while our “duly elected” representatives are busy banning Zyn and babysitting on Little Saint James, Texas and 25 other states are fighting to preserve our nation’s hard-won borders.
Our nation is a contract. We pay taxes, follow the law, swear loyalty, and perform other obligations in return for services from the federal government. Our founders eschewed the divine right of kings. We do not abide the necessary evil that is Washington, D.C. (emphasis on evil) for nothing.
If those in the federal government wish to disregard their constitutional obligations, let them. But they should not be surprised when states consequently assert their sovereignty and ignore federal directives, as Texas has. For too long, federal power has run roughshod over state interests, showing less restraint than Chris Christie at Krispy Kreme. I hope more states follow Texas’ lead.
Nick Treglia is a first-year law student.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to [email protected].
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