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Jackson vs. Calhoun and the Nullification Crisis Essay

It has been rare in American history for presidents and vice-presidents not to get along, but it has happened on a few occasions: Adams and Jefferson, Kennedy and Johnson, and Eisenhower and Nixon are a few examples (Jackson vs. Calhoun-Part 1 1). However, the most controversial relationship between president and his assistant was between Andrew Jackson and John C. Calhoun. Their disagreements began very early on in Jackson’s administration, and lasted until after the resolution of the Nullification Crisis. Nullification is the refusal of a state to recognize a federal law within its boundaries and deem that law unconstitutional. In this case, South Carolina, led by John C. Calhoun, refused to recognize the protective tariffs in 1828, and 1832, saying that they benefited the North and injured the South.

At this point in time, the American system of government was fairly new and the struggle between state and federal power was in full swing. Towards the end of the crisis, Calhoun went so far as to threaten to secede from the Union to show Jackson and the rest of America that individual state governments were indeed powerful. When the quarrel had reached its peak, Jackson had had enough and decided it was time to put an end to the crisis. The actions and decisions made by President Andrew Jackson in regards to John C. Calhoun and the Nullification Crisis not only enabled the Union to remain together, but proved the power of the federal government.

Before reviewing Jackson’s actions during the Nullification Crisis it is important to understand where the disagreements between the two men originated. In 1829, just shortly before Jackson was inaugurated, John Eaton, a friend and soon to be secretary of war under Jackson, married the widow and non-reputable Peggy O’Neale Timberlake. Because Timberlake was now the wife of a man in office, the other women would have to accept her as an equal, which they were not happy about. Jackson, however, refused to believe that the women were justified in their behavior, for he considered Peggy to be “chaste as a virgin” (Barzman 56). After Jackson ordered the wives of all of his associates to regard Mrs. Eaton as a social equal, they all complied except for one; Floride Calhoun, the wife of John C. Calhoun. Calhoun later claimed to Jackson he could not (or would not) change the mind of his strong willed wife. This enraged the newly elected President and began the tumultuous nature of the two men’s relationship.

The main aspect which fueled their poor relationship was their differences in political opinions. Although both men were from similar parts of the country and both were dedicated to the welfare of their home states, they disagreed on one very important area. Jackson was a nationalist, who believed strongly in preserving the Union and placing federal power over that of the individual states. Calhoun, on the other hand, was exactly the opposite. Although prior to 1830, he had been a nationalist, Calhoun was now an extreme states’ rights advocate (Barzman 56). This colossal difference in political philosophy set the scene for the most important argument between president and vice-president and foreshadows Calhoun’s plans for South Carolina.

Calhoun had been gathering his information and formulating his ideas for the future of South Carolina for quite some time, waiting for the perfect opportunity to reveal his master plan. He wanted to declare nullification because his home state of South Carolina was economically depressed, fearful about the future of slavery, and thought the new tariffs supported the North at the expense of the South (The Nullification 1). Jackson had an idea that Calhoun was planning something radical so at the Jefferson Day Dinner on April 30, 1830, he stated that “Our Union–it must be preserved”. To this Calhoun replied, “The Union. Next to our liberties, most dear” (Barzman 58). After publicly declaring his dedication to South Carolina before the Union, Calhoun resigned the vice-presidency and served in the South Carolina Senate.

Less than two years later, on April 24, 1832, Calhoun sent the South Carolina Ordinance of Nullification to Jackson, in which he declared, “The people of the state of South Carolina declare the duties imposed by said acts, and all judicial proceedings which shall be hereafter had in affirmance thereof, are and shall be null and void. We do further declare that we will not submit to the application of force on the part of the Federal Government” (Hamilton 1). Jackson, appalled by this direct threat to the Union and the Federal Government, was determined to put Calhoun in his place and do anything he could to preserve the Union.

Although Calhoun had stated in his Ordinance that South Carolina would not respond to any forceful acts by the government to attempt to get Calhoun to back down, Jackson found a way to outsmart his opponent. Jackson had congress pass a bill in 1833, “which allowed him to use soldiers to enforce the tariff measures” (Nullification Crisis 1). After the Force Bill was passed, Jackson sent several warships and hundreds of soldiers to Charleston to enforce the laws of the government.

Some people argue that what Jackson did was wrong because based on the constitution, Calhoun had the right to declare Nullification for South Carolina. However, what Jackson did was also constitutional and enabled the United States of America to remain as one. Had Jackson not passed the Force Bill immediately after South Carolina’s Ordinance was received, Calhoun’s scheme may have succeeded and South Carolina would have seceded from the Union, proving that the Federal Government really did not have any power over that of the individual state.

After the terms of the Force Bill were set into place, Calhoun began to realize the trouble he had gotten himself into and wanted to find a dignified way to redeem himself and his home state. At first Calhoun attempted to find other states willing to support and join his cause, but no other Southern states seemed to agree with his theory of nullification. In order to resolve the issue, Calhoun went to Henry Clay, the “Great Compromiser”, for assistance. Towards the end of 1833, Clay was able to draft a compromise which “pacified South Carolina while allowing the Federal government to stand firm” (The Nullification 2).

This negotiation gradually reduced the tariffs over a period of ten years until they returned down to the level which had existed in 1816. Jackson and Calhoun both signed the compromise and the crisis ended without bloodshed. Many people argue that it was due to the negotiating skills of Henry Clay, not Jackson, which enabled the Union to remain in tact. However, had Jackson not passed the Force Bill initially, Calhoun never would have been pressured into seeking out Clay for assistance.

With the conclusion of the Nullification Crisis its significance to the growth of the American government became apparent. By Jackson defeating Calhoun, and essentially defeating the argument of states’ rights advocates, he accomplished two important things. His first accomplishment was that he had “proved the power of the Federal Government to enforce laws, even when states disagree with them” (Jackson vs. Calhoun – Part 2 2).

This not only gave the American people more confidence in the Federal Government, but made them begin to realize that having state governments stronger than the Federal government would not be beneficial to the nation. Jackson’s second accomplishment was that he enabled the Union to remain intact. He had postponed any bloodshed over the issue of states’ rights – but only for 30 years. Had Calhoun’s wishes been fulfilled, the Union may have fallen apart and his home state of South Carolina would have become a powerful self-governing territory.

The difference in political philosophy between Andrew Jackson and John C. Calhoun was the root of their tumultuous relationship, which began early on in their executive life together. The confrontational nature of their relationship led America into the Nullification Crisis during which Calhoun put the welfare of his home state above that of the union, trying to secede and show the power of state government. Jackson would not have states overpowering the government, and passed the Force Bill allowing him to use the Federal Army and Navy to get South Carolina to obey the laws the Federal Government had made. State Government and Calhoun lost their battle and the Federal Government proved its powers. Although he was not able to erase the problem of states’ rights, were it not for Jackson’s intelligent decisions during the Nullification Crisis, the United States may not have existed, as a single union, as it does today.

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