A Theory of Government Called Nullification

When John C. Calhoun resigned as vice president, he was immediately elected a senator from South Carolina. When it was clear he wouldn’t become president, Calhoun abandoned his support of a strong central government and became a champion of the rights of states to pick and choose what federal laws they would obey, a theory of government called nullification.

Calhoun’s embrace of states’ rights and nullification further pushed him away from Jackson. Even though he was a Westerner and a slave owner, Jackson was an ardent nationalist. At a White House dinner, when nullification proponents tried to test his loyalties by offering a series of toasts about states’ rights, Jackson responded, “Our Federal Union: It must be preserved!” (To which Calhoun replied, “The Union — next to our liberty, the most dear!”)

Despite Jackson’s support, nationalism was having a tough time. In the Senate, a January 26, 1830, debate on whether to stop selling public land in the West gradually turned into a debate on nullification.

Senator Robert Hayne of South Carolina gave a long, impassioned, eloquent speech in favor of the idea, pointing out that it was the only way a state could safeguard its interests and not be dominated by other areas.

Then Daniel Webster of Massachusetts took the floor. Webster was one of the greatest orators in American history. Dark and imposing, with eyes that glowed like coals and a deep but pleasing voice, Webster spoke for hours.

The people, not the states, had ratified the Constitution, he said, and if the states were allowed to decide which sections they would or wouldn’t subscribe to, the country would be held together by nothing but “a rope of sand.”

“While the Union lasts we have high, exciting, gratifying prospects spread out before us, for us and our children,” he exclaimed. “When my eyes shall be turned to behold for the last time the sun in heaven … [l]et their last feeble and lingering glance rather behold the gorgeous ensign of the republic … and in every wind under the whole heavens, that other sentiment dear to every true American heart — liberty and union, now and forever, one and inseparable!”

Webster’s speech had a spectacular effect. Within three months, 40,000 copies had been published, and within a few years, parts of it were standard reading in textbooks throughout the North and West. Hundreds of thousands of young Northerners and Westerners were exposed to its sentiments — including a 21-year-old man on his way to Illinois named Abraham Lincoln. For many of them, the speech’s message became words worth fighting for.

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