Nullification and Secession: The Bedrocks of Federalism

Posted: September 4, 2009 by elutherian in Uncategorized

Jefferson ChangeIn 1819, Chief Justice John Marshall of the Supreme Court, led the decision in the case “McCulluch vs. Maryland”. In the case it was decided, essentially, that Federal Law held precedence over state law. This was a harsh blow to the Jeffersonians and the voluntary union of sovereign states. An early case, in 1803, led by Marshall as well, had decided that the Supreme Court had the sole power of “Judicial Review” of the constitution.

These two cases constituted two major victories for the Hamiltonian dream of a consolidated federal government. At the nations founding, it was accepted that not only were the Supreme Court, Congress, and the Executive complicit in deciding matters of constitutionality, but so were the States. The separation of powers (checks and balances) did not merely apply to the branches of the Federal Government, but to the advent of Federalism as well. The idea that the States had an equal say in the process was held as a sacred right by Jefferson, Madison, and others during the early years of America.

The two most sacred rights held by the sovereign states was that of Nullification, which allowed States to decide whether a law was Constitutional or not, and whether or not they would follow it… the second was that of Secession… the principle that whenever a State wished to absolve it’s participation in the Union, it could do so. That, if the State felt it necessary, it had the right, as did the people, as sovereign states, to withdrawal from the Federal Government and become fully independent again. If the Union was voluntarily created, than it can be voluntarily dissolved.

These two powers held a great check against federal abuse, if ever they were cast away, and decided to be unnecessary, the Federal Government would usurp the rights of the states and the people. They would then form a consolidated and tyrannical despotism.

After the Jeffersonian era had ended, the rule of Washington fell over to both the Democrats (Jeffersonians) and the Whigs (Hamiltonian Federalists). The Whigs were the party of the financial and business elite. They favored high tariffs to benefit northern industry at the expense of southern farmers. They supported a national bank (destroyed twice, by both Jefferson and Jackson), as well as corporate subsidies and handouts to their pals. The chief among the Whigs was Senator Henry Clay (the orchestator of the War of 1812, and advocate of a national draft).

On the Democratic side of the isle sat Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina. He supported lower tariffs and taxes. He stood against a National Bank and corporate subsidies. He was an ardent believer in State’s Rights, including nullification and secession.

Basically, Calhoun was Jefferson’s successor… Clay was Hamilton’s. The two ideologies were once again battling it out for the fate of America. Where Jefferson won originally, the Hamiltonians were swiftly gaining political clout. With so many railroad companies, industries, and bankers backing the Whigs in national elections, the Democrats (though favored among the popular support) were finding it hard to compete.

The right of nullification and secession was constantly upheld as a right of the state’s. During the War of 1812 (orchestrated by War-Hawk Henry Clay), New England states threatened secession. President Madison never once questioned their right to do so. Eventually the problem was resolved.

Nullification (the process by which as State can decide whether a Federal law is constitutional or not) was equally recognized. When Andrew Jackson became President the tariff rates went up, causing South Carolina to suffer. John C. Calhoun, the vice-president and former Senator from that state, led a nullification campaign that eventually won out. South Carolina refused to allow the collection of tariff money, and arrested anyone who tired to collect it. Jackson eventually conceded to Calhoun and South Carolina.

However, the real war between the Jeffersonian tradition of State’s Rights and the Hamiltonian view of a consolidated federal empire was only about to begin.


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