by Mark Young
Being a “political animal” of sorts and keeping my eye out for news articles opinion pieces that source historical events for political propaganda, I’ve been very concerned with some of the news articles opinion pieces I’ve been reading recently about nullification.
In particular these two news articles opinion pieces:
In both of these opinion pieces the authors are tying nullification to John Calhoun of South Carolina and infers that the history of nullification began with the South Carolina Nullification Ordinance of 1832 and ended in 1865. Both authors make statements that place the entire history of nullification square on backs of The South and slave owners. Nothing could be further from the truth, on either account.
In “Just secede already” Chuck Thompson states “it’s the same old obstructionist strategy that’s been pursued by traitorous Southerners” and is part of the “same soiled fabric that stretches from John C. Calhoun and South Carolina’s 1832 Ordinance of Nullification—an argument that essentially said that if a state didn’t like a federal law it could simply ignore it”. Of course that law referred to here is The Tariff of 1828 (aka The Tariff of Abominations).
In “The Real Lessons of Green Eggs and Ham” Jesse Jackson goes even further when he defines nullification as, “one of the last-ditch philosophical stands of the slaveholders, the historically disreputable — and thoroughly discredited — concept that a state could “nullify” a federal law by declaring it null and void.” He also, as does Thompson, place the nullification doctrine squarely upon South Carolina and John Calhoun when he states, “The concept was most famously expounded by South Carolina Sen. John C. Calhoun almost two centuries ago.” Then Jackson goes on to say, “It has been struck down repeatedly by the courts and was never accepted outside the Confederacy. Since it was used mainly to protect slavery in the South, it eventually helped lead to a horrible Civil War, and eventually the idea was totally discredited.” (emphasis mine)
Of course all of this is an attempt to tie the idea of nullification to secession, The South, The Confederacy and, most importantly, slavery. History, on the other hand, tells an entirely different story. One which I’m sure that neither of these two State apologist, nor any of its adoring fans, will like to hear.
Nullification has a long history in these United States and the idea began not soon after the Constitution was ratified and the government was in its infancy. The year was 1798 and it was espoused by non other than Thomas Jefferson, in The Kentucky Resolution which stated;
That the several states who formed that instrument, 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
James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution”, helped pen The Virginia Resolution which stated;
the General Assembly doth solemenly appeal to the like dispositions of the other states, in confidence that they will concur with this commonwealth in declaring, as it does hereby declare, that the acts aforesaid, are unconstitutional; and that the necessary and proper measures will be taken by each, for co-operating with this state, in maintaining the Authorities, Rights, and Liberties, referred to the States respectively, or to the people
In the October draft of The Kentucky Resolution, Jefferson made, what was quite possibly, his strongest statement for the “absoluteness” of the Constitution when he wrote;
Let him say what the government is, if it be not a tyranny, which the men of our choice have conferred on our President, and the President of our choice has assented to, and accepted over the friendly strangers to whom the mild spirit of our country and its laws have pledged hospitality and protection: that the men of our choice have more respected the bare _suspicions_ of the President, than the solid right of innocence, the claims of justification, the sacred force of truth, and the forms and substance of law and justice. In questions of power, then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution
Old Jefferson always did have a way with words and was a constantly stirring the pot, so to speak.
Both of these resolutions were in opposition to The Alien and Sedition Acts. These acts were an affront to the very principles of our founding and basically voided the First Amendment protections of our freedom of speech (among other things). Those two resolutions “nullified” Acts of Congress, which had passed by vote and been declared constitutional by the Supreme Court, yet they were rendered unenforceable in the States because they just simply didn’t comply.
This was the first such instance of nullification but it wasn’t the last time nor was it used by those “traitorous Southerners”, to “protect slavery”, EVER. How can I make such a bold statement? History, if one would actually bother to look it up and read, tells us otherwise.
The fact is slavery, at that time, was legal (albeit de facto) in the United States. The slave owners had nothing TO nullify. No the facts of history are that several States (Connecticut in 1854, Rhode Island 1854, Massachusetts 1855, Michigan 1855, Maine 1855 and 1857, and Kansas 1858)1 used their legal power of nullification to make The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 unenforceable. Wisconsin went even further by declaring The Fugitive Slave Act “unconstitutional”, using wording taken directly from the Kentucky Resolution. Even though that decision by the Wisconsin court was overturned by the US Supreme Court, Wisconsin refused to file the U.S. Court’s mandate upholding the fugitive slave law!
To find out how South Carolina really felt about nullification at that time one only has to look at its secession resolution which states;
“The States of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa, have enacted laws which either nullify the Acts of Congress or render useless any attempt to execute them.”
Does that sound like they were in favor of nullification in this instance? Doesn’t to me either. Matter of fact if one wants to look even further you see this as a recurring theme. When Mississippi seceded they said;
“It has nullified the Fugitive Slave Law in almost every free State in the Union, and has utterly broken the compact which our fathers pledged their faith to maintain.”
You see similar statements in the Georgia secession document;
“The non-slave-holding States generally repealed all laws intended to aid the execution of that act, and imposed penalties upon those citizens whose loyalty to the Constitution and their oaths might induce them to discharge their duty”
Also the Texas secession document states;
“The States of Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa, by solemn legislative enactments, have deliberately, directly or indirectly violated the 3rd clause of the 2nd section of the 4th article [the fugitive slave clause] of the federal constitution, and laws passed in pursuance thereof; thereby annulling a material provision of the compact”
Even today, we are seeing several States nullify Federal law by allowing the use of Medical Marijuana or actually legalizing the use of marijuana in small quantities. Of course they don’t mind THAT kind of nullification and so completely ignore those nullification resolutions simply because it doesn’t help pander their propaganda.
In conclusion, as hard as Jackson, Thompson and others of their ilk try to tie nullification to the Confederacy and slavery a cursory reading of historical documents proves otherwise. Nullification did not start with Calhoun, nor did it end in 1865. Nullification has a long honored tradition in our “political experiment” and was never used to promote slavery as these two charlatans attempt, and fail miserably, to insinuate. The real problem is this one small, but very significant, issue. Most people don’t/won’t do even the most cursory reading of any historical documents and will take, on faith, the words of these two men. Of even greater concern, at least to me, is this a deliberate attempt by these two men, if not THE SYSTEM in its entirety, to misinform a public, that they know will take their assessment at face value, or have they been deluded themselves and actually believe their lies? If it is former it is despicable, if it is the latter it is pathetic.
Just my thoughts.