The Nullification Controversy in South Carolina/Chapter 8



Congress was in session while South Carolina was making her hostile preparations. The ordinance of nullification, together with the acts of the legislature providing the means for carrying it into force, was to become effective on February 1, 1833, unless, of course. Congress before that date repealed the protective features of the tariff. Everybody eagerly watched for indications of such action.

William Drayton carefully sounded the members of Congress and found that with a few exceptions from the South and West they were opposed to nullification as "an absurd and mischievous paradox." Several members of the Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia delegations, with some few from other states, contended for the right of peaceable secession by a sovereign state, but a large majority of Congress regarded the right as "merely a revolutionary one, the practical exercise of which the United States might and ought to suppress … by physical force if necessary." Notwithstanding a general accordance with these sentiments, all the representatives with whom Drayton conferred declared their willingness and anxiety to cooperate in the furtherance of any reasonable expedient which might prevent a conflict between South Carolina and the federal government. To this end "several of the thorough-going tariffites" told him that they "would submit to great sacrifices of the pecuniary interests of the manufacturers by voting for large deductions from the rate of protective duties." This accounted for the Verplanck bill.

Although the Senate was believed to be less favorably disposed toward the bill than the House, Drayton thought that all signs pointed to the growing favor of free trade everywhere, and that surely by the next session, if not in this one, a satisfactory reduction would be made. He thought that the Nullifiers ought to see this and postpone action until after the next session.[1] Calhoun, too, as the session progressed, thought that the prospect was good for a satisfactory adjustment and that the scheme of coercion would be abandoned if the South Carolina people continued firm but prudent and gave no occasion for the use of force.[2] From all sides came testimony that everything was promising for a reduction of the tariff, as both parties now seemed to admit the necessity of it.[3] The question still remained, however: Would it be a reduction acceptable to the State Rights party?

Some men, however, believed that no reduction of the tariff would be voted, because there was a party in the North just as desirous of a separation of the sections as any faction in South Carolina. According to this view, the tariff advocates not favored by the taxes desired disunion, and the aristocracy in both sections saw in disunion a "multiplication of offices and taxes by which alone they can live without labor on the sweat and toil of the people." Other men believed that though the existing Congress would not reduce the tariff, the composition of the new Congress guaranteed a reduction which could be accomplished by special session in April or May.[4] Some of the Union papers, soon after they saw an inclination on the part of Congress to yield on the tariff, began to express the hope that Congress would not yield in such a way as to give the Nullifiers the credit of a victory. Writers in these papers pointed out that if Congress yielded to the usurpation of undelegated power by a party which never fairly represented the "honest desires and opinions of the state," so long as the ordinance and acts of nullification remained unrepealed; if it should be intimidated into concessions by the South Carolina hotspurs; then the people would know that thenceforth a supreme law of the land could be made void by a state convention "fraudulently obtained" whenever it might suit the purpose of a few ambitious individuals.[5]

The State Rights party then accused the Unionists of being in league with the northern manufacturers to prevent a tariflf reduction, and declared that if the present session of Congress failed to modify the tariff as the South demanded, and bloodshed and disunion followed, the Union party would be responsible. They insisted that the Union party had at last disclosed its true colors by hoisting the "genuine Black Flag of Tariffism." They claimed that a review of the course followed by the Union party would show that it had continually tried to reconcile the state to the tariff, and had in fact encouraged the northern manufacturers to persist in their course.[6]

The Union party answered that it was still, as it had been, bitterly opposed to the tariff, and wanted every possible constitutional means employed to remove it, but that it did not want the tariff lowered under the menace of the nullification ordinance. Not a few of the Union men felt as Drayton did, that if the tariff reduction then being considered were passed, and the Nullifiers in consequence thereof should suspend all further proceedings under the recent laws of the legislature, the gratification of these Union men at the partial or total repeal of the protective system would be not a little diminished because of the triumph it would afford the Nullifiers; for they "would ascribe to their own miserable sophistry and corrupting intrigues this abandonment of a system which, without their conventional and legislative usurpations, was already expiring, from the conviction which for a considerable time past" had "been spreading among the people even in the tariff states, that its foundations" were "built upon selfishness and monopolizing cupidity."[7]

The State Rights party then pointed out that the position of the Union party meant that it stood for an "unlimited central consolidated government," with the states absolutely at its mercy .[8] In order further to prove that the Union party was in league with the central government, the State Rights presses made much of a story that, according to the confessions of Union men themselves, the President's proclamation and all of his plans in handling the South Carolina situation had been and still were concocted in Charleston by the Union party.[9]

Even though things did look promising at Washington, the State Rights men went ahead with their military organization. From many parts of the state came reports to the governor that men were volunteering readily for the militia, and that new companies were being formed.[10] Details were being perfected for a movement of troops from the interior to the coast; depots of supplies of bacon, fodder, corn, etc., were established on the lines of march decided upon for the various companies, battalions, and regiments.[11] In some districts the degree of enthusiasm desired by the State Rights leaders was lacking, and it was difficult to get a company of minute men willing to make the sacrifices entailed.[12] All of this preparation was formidable enough to cause many citizens to leave the state.[13]

During January the President was often informed of the trend of affairs in South Carolina, and he became ever more convinced of the necessity of prompt and effective measures. "The modern doctrine of nullification and secession [must be] put down forever, for we have yet to learn whether some of the eastern states may not secede or nullify if the tariff is reduced. I have to look at both ends of the Union to preserve it." He must, he declared, at once ask Congress to give the United States officers power sufficient to thwart the Nullifiers. Their leaders were to be prosecuted for treason, and if they were "surrounded by 12,000 bayonets, our marshall" should "be aided by 24,000 and arrest them in the midst thereof. Nothing must be permitted to weaken our government at home or abroad." He was said to believe that no tariff bill could prevent an open rupture, but to hope that one might be passed which would keep the other southern states quiet while he disciplined "Messrs. Calhoun, Hamilton, and Hayne"; without any bill, much was to be feared from the whole South, including even Tennessee. The Secretary of War was said to agree with this view.[14]

Jackson's plan did not thoroughly satisfy the Unionists of Charleston, for they were disincliiied to join in mortal conflict with their adversaries as a part of a posse comitatus called out by the United States marshal. "There is scarcely a family wherein some member is not in the opposite ranks," wrote Poinsett. They feared that such a plan would not succeed, and that they would find themselves prisoners of the state. They preferred that the marshal and the federal judge should certify that they could not execute the law, whereupon the President could call out the militia and the Unionists would obey the call. They would continue their military organization, though at the disadvantage of having to do it secretly, and would be prepared to go into open warfare with the aid of the general government. They should, they held, be prepared to strike the moment troops began to move from the interior toward Charleston, for if the Nullifiers were permitted to occupy the city, it would cost much blood to dislodge them.[15]

As the time approached when the ordinance of nullification would go into effect, things were still unsettled in Congress, but there was a good prospect of a satisfactory adjustment if a little more time were given. This circumstance, together with the fact that the State Rights military force had few arms as yet and was in a state of organization by no means efficient, caused the State Rights men to think that it would be best to postpone the date for putting the ordinance into action. A meeting of the party was held in Charleston on January 21. At this meeting were many men who were looked upon as the leaders of the party and whose word was in fact the party law. A set of resolutions was introduced, supported by these men, and adopted by the meeting, recommending that a collision with the federal government should be avoided until Congress had had an opportunity to modify the tariff, and declaring that in case a satisfactory modification did not follow, state action was to proceed. The President and his measures received their customary share of denunciation. General James Hamilton, Jr., spoke earnestly for the resolutions, and said that he had a cargo of sugar coming from Havana, which he would allow to go into the custom-house stores and await events; he would cause no unnecessary collision, but he felt sure that, if their hopes of a satisfactory adjustment of the question were disappointed, his fellow-citizens would go even to death with him for his sugar. This was greeted with a unanimous burst of applause, and "even to death with Hamilton for his sugar" became a slogan.[16]

There were also other considerations which prompted delay. It was pointed out that they could now pause in honor, since the President's message of January 16, asking for acts of Congress to give him additional power to use in case of conflict with South Carolina, was a considerable descent from the lofty position assmned in his proclamation.[17] The Nullifiers maintained that the President's last message fairly admitted the peaceful character of nullification under existing laws, for it seemed to require extraordinary legislation to give either the President or the collector any lawful means to counteract the state's ordinance. Then, too, there had been received from various quarters in other southern states reports that the doctrine of nullification was not regarded favorably, and the state of Virginia, through its legislature, had requested South Carolina to desist, at least temporarily, and had sent a special messenger, Benjamin W. Leigh, in an effort toward mediation. Many there were who believed that Virginia and the other southern states deserved at least the concession of a pause.[18] Others there were, however, who stood with the district of Barnwell, which, prompted by James H. Hammond, had expressed itself in favor of the rejection of any mediation from other states urging a suspension of the ordinance, unless it was accompanied by a pledge to prevent the enforcement of the tariff within their limits if it was not repealed in a given time,[19] The views of the radicals, who were for yielding not at all, were expressed by Hammond when he wrote:

I am satisfied that every stratagem will be resorted to by the administration to induce South Carolina to suspend her ordinance and I am not sure that a majority of the politicians in power in Virginia are not corrupt enough to prostitute her to this purpose, without intending to do more than prostrate our state if possible. Let the ordinance be suspended and their game is manifest. The tariff will be so lowered as to take away (it is hoped) the chief cause of our excitement, and render it impossible to get the people ever again to nullify. The. principle however is to remain untouched, and after a few years of respiration the assault again to be made upon our purses and our liberty.[20]

And this, in fact, proved a fair prophecy of what did take place. Hammond believed that the people of South Carolina were now ready to nullify a protecting tariff of even 1 per cent, but that the other states would accept a slight reduction of the tariff and that South Carolina would then lose the formidable power she derived from the sympathy of fellow-sufferers. Nullification would then surely end in civil war.

The resolutions of the meeting of the State Rights party of the Charleston congressional and judicial districts, with a speaker or two from the interior, were indorsed by the party at large, and nullification was suspended without further formality. Thereupon Union men remarked that the sovereignty of the state was in an awkward predicament. The Charleston State Rights convocation had apparently determined its supremacy over the convention. The injunctions laid by the convention on the citizen were positive that he should pay no duties under the acts of 1828 and 1832 after February 1; but this solemn determination of the sovereignty of South Carolina had been superseded. The Union men were pleased with the moderation of the State Rights party in recommending to its members that they refrain from contention while the subject of the tariff was so near a settlement ; but that such a recommendation proceeded from a local meeting showed in what inconsistency the party had involved itself.[21]

Even though the process of nullification had been suspended, the Ntillifiers continued their recruiting, for along with the plans for tariff reform the Wilkins force bill had been introduced, to provide for the forcible collection of the duties if necessary. Parades and reviews were staged to arouse interest and encourage enlistment. James H. Hammond, a district commander, reported in the first week of February that the commander-in-chief could count on 850 men in Barnwell, about two-thirds of the fighting men; in the last week in the same month he reported that had volunteered.[22] To the first report he added:

The late movements in Congress have excited the people very much, and if Wilkins' bill becomes a law they will be prepared for anything. The decided impression now is that there will be a war, and the idea appears to excite the people. The shock that was felt upon the first indication of settling our controversy with the sword is wearing off and there is every prospect of as much unanimity among the people on this question as any of a political character whether of war or peace that was ever proposed to them.

In commenting on the spirit at a recent review, at which speeches by himself, William C. Preston, and S. H. Butler did much to "make the people sound,"Hammond said:

Every one seemed ready to fight, and all appear animated by a most thorough conviction that we are unconquerable. I am sure the difficulty with us will not be the want of men but officers and means. It will take one year at least to make our army efficient in point of discipline. The United States have greatly the advantage in this respect, and no human power can remedy the defect at once. We should by all means have a military department in the collage. In regard to money it is important to be looking out even now. We shall certainly have to borrow money, and the moment a blow is struck negotiations should be set on foot for straining our credit to the utmost at once, when it will be best. In the meantime the private resources of the Whigs should be taken into consideration. On this point, I wish to speak for myself at once. I hold my property, all of it, as much at the service of the state as my life; but to calculate on some- thing short of extremities I think I can furnish you next year with the proceeds of an hundred bales of cotton. I did think of making a large provision crop, but reflecting that I was on the frontier of Georgia and flanked on all sides with Union men I thought perhaps it would be safer to plant cotton and furnish the state with the proceeds. If the seasons are ordinary I can afford to give at least one hundred bales without depriving m3rself of the means of meeting the contingent expenses of my official situation. For this I will take the state's certificate, or no certificate if the times require it. If it should be preferred, I would cheerfully turn over to the service of the state, from the time the first movement is made, all my efficient malè force to be employed in ditching, fortifying, building, etc.—of course not to bear arms, which would be dangerous policy to be justified only by the greatest extremities....I trust no resort will be made now at least to increased taxation; the people would not bear it whatever our descendants may have to do.[23] One great obstacle which the Nullifiers met in organizing their military force was a lack of arms. Governor Hayne sent out word that the demand for arms exceeded five times the number in the possession of the state. "Our supplies," he wrote, "come in slowly; we have no manufactories, and indeed the finances of the state would be exhausted in procuring half the number of arms that have been called for. You will see at once, therefore, that a strong appeal must be made to the patriotism of the people to furnish themselves with arms and equipments." He believed that what arms the state did possess must be husbanded until actual work in the field was needed; this was a precaution necessary to keep them in the best of condition. However, a small issue was made to supply some of those troops who could not supply themselves. James H. Hammond reported in reply to Governor Hayne that it was in vain to make an appeal to the patriotism of more than one man in fifty for the purchase of arms. Such as they had, the people would use and use well, but they were too poor to buy. Whenever they were called into regular service, the state must expect to arm them, if they were to act efficiently. They might skirmish in the woods and harass invaders with their shotguns, but they could not stand a moment in the field before a regular force properly equipped.[24]

It was even rumored among the Unionists that the British consul in Charleston, who was said to be a Nullifier, had assured his friends that he had written to the commander of the British squadron in the West Indies requesting him to send some war vessels to Charleston harbor to protect the persons and property of English subjects. Whatever the pretext, said the Unionists, the appearance of such a force would encourage the Nullifiers, for their leaders had led them to believe that in a contest with the federal government they would receive the aid of Great Britain.[25]

Meanwhile the Union party was not inactive, for many believed that, if the tariff bill failed to satisfy the Nullifiers, civil war in South Carolina was almost certain. Though many Nullifiers still believed that they could settle all differences peaceably by a simple declaration of secession, to William Drayton at Washington it seemed evident that Congress would not permit South Carolina to withdraw from the Union, whatever might be the opinion of the Nullifiers as to the abstract right of a state to secede.[26] The Union men saw the necessity of organization, and held frequent meetings both in the districts where they were in a majority and in those where they were not; "Union Societies" began to be formed all over the state.[27] The resolutions adopted by these meetings disapproved of the entire plan of action taken by the Nullifiers in the convention and the legislature, praised the President for his policy, and pledged the members of the party to remain true to the Union and never to take up arms against the Stars and Stripes. The Union press considered that the elections for sheriff in several districts in January showed a gain for their party.[28] The absorbing interest of everybody seemed to be the support of one or the other of the two parties; small boys in the streets and ministers in the pulpits wore cockades showing their affiliations.[29]

In several districts of the interior Union men predominated in the militia companies and prevented them from being counted among the resources of the Nullifiers.[30] The Union party, too, was making an attempt at military organization. Their work had of necessity to be more secret. Joel R. Poinsett seemed to be known to be the leader of the Union forces, and some Union companies were formed, but not so many as among the majority party.[31] Though some of the Union men were so apprehensive that they sent their valuables to the North lest the Nullifiers confiscate them, the Nullifiers were also disquieted because in some few districts the Union military organization took on a formidable character.[32] The Union men had as a constant source of encouragement the assurance of help from the President when needed. Jackson, however, did not wish to interfere by giving the aid of federal troops, unless that course was positively necessary. He hoped to see the Union patriots of South Carolina themselves put down nullification, save the character of the state, and add thereby to the stability of the Union. He wished, nevertheless, to be kept constantly informed of the action of the Nullifiers; and he was prepared, the moment they should be in hostile array against the execution of the laws, forthwith to order the arrest and prosecution of the leaders; the first act of treason committed, when the first armed force should appear in the field to sustain the ordinance, would, he believed, call to its support all those who had aided and abetted in the excitement; he could then "strike at the head and demolish the monster, nullification and secession, at the threshold by the power of the law."

Then, if any forcible resistance were encountered, he would at once call into the field such a force as would overawe it, "put treason and rebellion down without blood," and arrest and hand over to the judiciary for trial and punishment the "leaders, exciters, and promoters of this rebellion and treason." On receiving official notice of the assemblage of a force in Charleston, armed to resist the laws, he would have in Charleston, in ten or fifteen days at the latest, from ten to fifteen thousand organized troops, well equipped for the field, and from twenty to thirty thousand more in the interior. He reported to the Union men that he had had a tender of volunteers "from every state in the Union," and could, "if need be, which God forbid, march 200,000 men in forty days to quell any and every insurrection or rebellion that might arise to threaten our glorious confederacy and Union, upon which our liberty, prosperity, and happiness rest." He felt convinced that the whole nation, from Maine to Louisiana, including even Virginia, would unitedly stand behind him in the position he had taken.[33] Virginia would go with him, he believed, in response to the voice of her yeomanry, even though the legislature and governor opposed him.

    considering the conflict of three decades later. When the editor of the Columbia Telescope heard that a New York militia corps had volunteered to aid the President in sustaining the laws of the Union, he sent a challenge demanding that, in case nullification proved a bloodless affair, the officers at least of that corps should have an opportunity to fight; for a southern antagonist, he said, would be furnished for every one of their officers, from colonel to corporal (Niles' Register, February 9, 1833).

  1. Poinsett Papers: Drayton to Poinsett, December 31, 1832.
  2. Calhoun Correspondence: Calhoun to J. E. Calhoun, January 10, 1833.
  3. Mountaineer, January 12, 1833; Messenger, January 23; Niles' Register, January 5.
  4. Van Buren Papers: Michael Hoffman to Van Buren, December 7, 19, 1832; Hoffman to A. C. Flagg, December 18; T. H. Benton to Van Buren, December 16.
  5. Mercury, January 3, 1833; Gazette, January 3. Such assertions that the convention had been "fraudulently obtained" and did not fairly represent "the honest desires and opinions of the state" were untrue, for they were based on the assumption that the people were deceived by the nullification leaders and tricked into voting for a convention, feeling confident that it would adopt a "peaceable" remedy. The greater part of the people who voted for the convention secured in its action just what they wanted and expected. That these acts produced results different from those anticipated was beside the point.
  6. Mercury, January 3, 7, 1833; Messenger, January 16.
  7. Poinsett Papers: Drayton to Poinsett, January 13, 1833; Courier, January 4, 8, 1833; Patriot, January 11, 14. Poinsett looked upon this as a consideration of minor importance (Jackson Papers: Poinsett to Jackson, January 7).
  8. Mercury, January 8, 1833. And this pointed out, indeed, the real issue; it was the old question of adjustment of power between the central government and the states.
  9. Telescope, January 8, 1833; Messenger, January 2; Mercury, January 11.
  10. The Hammond Papers contain some orders coming from, and reports going to, William E. Hayne, assistant adjutant inspector-general at Charleston, as to the organization of the army. Letters by Hammond to Governor Hayne, January 8, 1833, and to William C. Preston, January 10, show that this work was kept up unceasingly. See Mercury, January 5, 14; Messenger, January 9, 23, February 2.
  11. Hammond Papers: Francis W. Pickens to Hammond, January 14, 1833; Hammond to Pickens, January 18.
  12. Hammond Papers: Hammond to Governor Hayne, January 23, 1833: "The people of Barnwell are generally very poor, and, though staunch yeomanry, not generally so public spirited I find as some of our neighbors. If drafted there is not a Nullifier in the district and few Union men who would not cheerfully take up arms; they would make soldiers that might be depended on; but as to volunteering, they do not understand it and are not inclined to put themselves to unnecessary trouble. The fact is that there are not intelligent men enough sprinkled about to stir them up, and that they have gone right heretofore I attribute to mere instinct. Whenever they can be collected together I have never failed to produce some ardor among them; but in so large a district, so sparsely populated, it is difficult to get them together, and they know so little of the matter that one exhortation does not last long. I mentioned these things to show you why there has not been so spontaneous a burst of patriotism here as elsewhere."
  13. The Sumter Whig stated that if the tide of emigration from that district continued as it had gone on for the past two months, Sumter would soon literally be a waste and howling wilderness. And it was a matter deemed worthy of remark that it was not the Union men generally—the "spiritless submissionists," as they had been scornfully termed—but chiefly the "brave spirits, the pinks of chivalry, the fire and brimstone eaters," who had "suddenly been enlightened as to the vast advantages of the western country, and were leaving South Carolina in the midst of her troubles." "They were going to leave the glorious triumph of nullification behind them and seek a continuance of their oppressions in the West," the Mountaineer put it. See Mountaineer, January 12, 1833; Niles' Register, January 19.
  14. Van Buren Papers: Jackson to Van Buren, January 13, 1833; Silas Wright, Jr., to Van Buren, January 13.
  15. Jackson Papers: Poinsett to Jackson, January 16, 20, 1833.
  16. Mercury, January 23, 1833.
  17. Mercury, January 21, 23, 1833.
  18. Journal, January 19, February 9, 1833; Courier, February 2; Niles Register, February 9. When the force bill and the compromise tariff were before Congress, Leigh confessed that if the former should pass and the latter fail, South Carolina would probably not listen to the voice of Virginia; if the Nullifiers did "go on," the eastern part of Virginia would remain neutral and the western section would take part against them. See Jackson Papers: Poinsett to Jackson, February 9.
  19. Hammond Papers: Hammond to Preston, January 10, 1833; Preston to Hammond, January 14.
  20. Hammond Papers: Hammond to Preston, January 10, 1833.
  21. Patriot, January 23, 1833.
  22. Hammond Papers: Hammond to Hayne, February 7, 24, 1833.
  23. Hammond Papers: Hammond to Hayne, February 7, 1833. Here was a young planter, but lately married, willing to give not merely his services but his whole means of support to the cause of the state. A most bitter and intense spirit of hostility to the North was being developed, which may well be taken into account in
  24. Hammond Papers: Hayne to Hammond, February 12, 1833; Hammond to Hayne, February 24.
  25. Jackson Papers: Poinsett to Jackson, February 9, 1833.
  26. Poinsett Papers: Drayton to Poinsett, January 13, 1833.
  27. Mountaineer, January 5, 12, 19, February 9, 1833; Patriot, January14; Journal, February 2; Messenger, January 30.
  28. Mountaineer, January 26, 1833; Journal, February 2.
  29. Journal, February 2, 1833; Mountaineer, February 23.
  30. Mountaineer, February 16, 23, 1833.
  31. Poinsett Papers: Lee to Poinsett, January 2 1 , 1833 ; other letters in January and February.
  32. Niles' Register, February 9, 1833; Messenger, February 2. In a speech by Wilson, of Charleston, in the oonvention in March, referred to below, Horry, Chester, Greenville, Spartanburg, and Charleston were especially mentioned as districts where the Union organization was very strong.
  33. See Poinsett Papers: Drayton to Poinsett, December 31, 1832; Jackson to Poinsett, January 16, 24, February 7, 17, 1833. In short, Jackson was proving the truth of the picture which George McDuffie had drawn of him a few years previously, in the days before "the mist of nullification....overspread his imagination": "In a word, if I were called upon to define what it is that constitutes a talent for governing human affairs with wisdom, I would say that when our country is surrounded with difficulties, and a crisis is presented in her affairs, from which she should be speedily extricated, the man is best qualified to rule over her destinies—not, who can write, after months of deliberation, the most philosophical exposition of the causes of her embarrassment—not who can declaim most eloquently upon her distress—but who has the judgment to decide with promptitude what is the remedy that will save the republic, and energy enough to apply that remedy successfully whatever obstacles may be interposed by foreign force or domestic treason. Such is the man I should designate as qualified to fill the highest executive office of the republic. And such a man precisely is Andrew Jackson" (Journal, March 2, 1833) This Union editor now printed this former characterization of the President by one of his present bitter opponents, and remarked that the author had spoken more truly and pertinently than he had known.