Monday, April 3, 2006
Confederate "Heritage" Month 2006 - April 3: When Old Hickory saved the Union (2)
This post continues the discussion of the Nullification Controversy that I began in the previous post.
The best thing about Sean Wilentz' biography of Old Hickory, Andrew Jackson (2005), is that he understands the essential democratic thrust behind the Jacksonian movement, with all it contradictions. And he gives a good glimpse in a relatively short biography of the contradictions within the Jacksonian movement. After the 1833 compromise over the tariff was reached and the secessionists forced to back down from Jackson, his power boosted by Congressional support of the Force Bill, Wilentz writes:
"I have had a laborious task here," Jackson wrote to one of his cousins in the spring, "but nullification is dead; and its actors and exciters will only be remembered by the people to be execrated for their wicked designs." The president, having vindicated his own honor as well as the Union's, overestimated his victory. In the South, even staunch Jacksonians admitted that, although nullification was impermissible, Jackson had overreacted and defended ideas that endangered state rights. "You can rest assured," one anti-nullification, normally pro-Jackson Mississippian told a friend, "S[outh] C[arolina] has our sympathies." Many northern Jacksonians, although far more supportive of the president, still found his words and actions disquieting - at odds with Jeffersonian orthodoxy[on states rights] and unnecessarily antagonistic. Martin Van Buren [Jackson's successor as President], for one - concerned as ever about keeping the Jacksonian coalition intact and now anticipating his own eventual run for the presidency - could not get the New York legislature to unite in support of Jackson's nullification proclamation, and he personally opposed the Force Bill. Other anti-nullifiers saw the outcome as ominous in the long run. "Nullification has done its work," the South Carolina Unionist James Petigru wrote. "It has prepared the minds of men for a separation of the states - and when the question is moved again it will be distinctly union or disunion."
Unlike James Buchanan in 1860-61, Jackson didn't screw around with the secessionists. During the 1832 Presidential campaign, ominous rumors about disunionist sentiment kept coming out of South Carolina. In late October, he issued this order to his secretary of war:
The Secretary of War will forthwith cause secrete and confidential orders to be Issued to the officers commanding the Forts in the harbour of Charleston So Carolina to be vigilant to prevent a surprise in the night or by day, against any attempt to seize and occupy the Fts. by any Set of people under whatever pretext the Forts may be approached. Warn them that the attempt will be made, and the officers commanding will be responsible for the defence of the Forts and garrisons, against all intrigue or assault, and they are to defend them to the last extremity - permitting no armed force to approach either by night or day. The attempt will be made to surprise the Forts and garrisons by the [South Carolins] militia, and must be guarded against with vestal vigilence and any attempt by force repelled with prompt and examplary punishment. [Yes, Old Hickory was a poor speller.]
Two of Jackson's formal statements during the Nullification crisis are important in stating the essential issues and meaning of the crisis and its outcome, which was a victory for democracy and the Union. One is his annual message of 1932, which followed the South Carolina convention's adoption of the Ordinance of Nullification and their formal threat to secede. The other is his Proclamation to the People of South Carolina of 12/10/1832.
In his annual message, he appealed for "moderation and good sense". In the Proclamation, he stated his conception of the Union and democracy, the concept which was ultimately to win out in practice in the Civil War. He flatly rejected the right of the states to nullification and secession:
The ordinance is founded, not on the indefeasible right of resisting acts which are plainly unconstitutional, and too oppressive to be endured, but on the strange position that any one State may not only declare an act of Congress void, but prohibit its execution- that they may do this consistently with the Constitution-that the true construction of that instrument permits a State to retain its place in the Union, and yet be bound by no other of its laws than those it may choose to consider as constitutional. It is true they add, that to justify this abrogation of a law, it must be palpably contrary tothe Constitution, but it is evident, that to give the right of resisting laws of that description, coupled with the uncontrolled right to decide what laws deserve that character, is to give the power of resisting all laws. For, as by the theory, there is no appeal, the reasons alleged by the State, good or bad, must prevail. If it should be said that public opinion is a sufficient check against the abuse of this power, it may be asked why it is not deemed a sufficient guard against the passage of an unconstitutional act by Congress. There is, however, a restraint in this last case, which makes the assumed power of a State more indefensible, and which does not exist in the other. There are two appeals from an unconstitutional act passed by Congress-one to the judiciary, the other to the people and the States. There is no appeal from the State decision in theory; and the practical illustration shows that the courts are closed against an application to review it, both judges and jurors being sworn to decide in its favor. But reasoning on this subject is superfluous, when our social compact in express terms declares, that the laws of the United States, its Constitution, and treaties made under it, are the supreme law of the land; and for greater caution adds, "that the judges in every State shall be bound thereby, anything in the Constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding." And it may be asserted, without fear of refutation, that no federative government could exist without a similar provision. Look, for a moment, to the consequence. If South Carolina considers the revenue laws unconstitutional, and has a right to prevent their execution in the port of Charleston, there would be a clear constitutional objection to their collection in every other port, and no revenue could be collected anywhere; for all imposts must be equal. It is no answer to repeat that an unconstitutional law is no law, so long as the question of its legality is to be decided by the State itself, for every law operating injuriously upon any local interest will be perhaps thought, and certainly represented, as unconstitutional, and, as has been shown, there is no appeal. ...
I consider, then, the power to annul a law of the United States, assumed by one State, incompatible with the existence of the Union, contradicted expressly by the letter of the Constitution, unauthorized by its spirit, inconsistent with every principle on which It was founded, and destructive of the great object for which it was formed. ...
So obvious are the reasons which forbid this secession, that it is necessary only to allude to them. The Union was formed for the benefit of all. It was produced by mutual sacrifice of interest and opinions. Can those sacrifices be recalled? Can the States, who magnanimously surrendered their title to the territories of the West, recall the grant? Will the inhabitants of the inland States agree to pay the duties that may be imposed without their assent by those on the Atlantic or the Gulf, for their own benefit? Shall there be a free port in one State, and enormous duties in another? No one believes that any right exists in a single State to involve all the others in these and countless other evils, contrary to engagements solemnly made. Everyone must see that the other States, in self-defense, must oppose it at all hazards.
In the closing paragraphs, President Jackson laid out the Union position in the confrontation, connecting the preservation of the national Union directly with the American Revolution and the freedoms it aimed at guaranteeing:
There is yet time to show that the descendants of the Pinckneys, the Sumpters, the Rutledges, and of the thousand other names which adorn the pages of your Revolutionary history, will not abandon that Union to support which so many of them fought and bled and died. I adjure you, as you honor their memory - as you love the cause of freedom, to which they dedicated their lives - as you prize the peace of your country, the lives of its best citizens, and your own fair fame, to retrace your steps. Snatch from the archives of your State the disorganizing edict of its convention-hid its members to re-assemble and promulgate the decided expressions of your will to remain in the path which alone can conduct you to safety, prosperity, and honor - tell them that compared to disunion, all other evils are light, because that brings with it an accumulation of all-declare that you will never take the field unless the star-spangled banner of your country shall float over you - that you will not be stigmatized when dead, and dishonored and scorned while you live, as the authors of the first attack on the Constitution of your country! - its destroyers you cannot be. You may disturb its peace - you may interrupt the course of its prosperity - youmaycloud its reputation for stability - but its tranquillity will be restored, its prosperity will return, and the stain upon its national character will be transferred and remain an eternal blot on the memory of those who caused the disorder.
Fellow-citizens of the United States! the threat of unhallowed disunion - the names of those, once respected, by whom it is uttered [he meant John Calhoun in particular] - the array of military force to support it - denote the approach of a crisis in our affairs on which the continuance of our unexampled prosperity, our political existence, and perhaps that of all free governments, may depend. The conjuncture demanded a free, a full, and explicit enunciation, not only of my intentions, but of my principles of action, and as the claim was asserted of a right by a State to annul the laws of the Union, and even to secede from it at pleasure, a frank exposition of my opinions in relation to the origin and form of our government, and the construction I give to the instrument by which it was created, seemed to be proper. Having the fullest confidence in the justness of the legal and constitutional opinion of my duties which has been expressed, I rely with equal confidence on your undivided support in my determination to execute the laws - to preserve the Union by all constitutional means - to arrest, if possible, by moderate but firm measures, the necessity of a recourse to force; and, if it be the will of Heaven that the recurrence of its primeval curse on man for the shedding of a brother's blood should fall upon our land, that it be not called down by any offensive act on the part of the United States. (my emphasis)
Wilentz discusses the idea advocated by some historians that Jackson's conciliatory annual address, which called for moderation and also offered to compromise on the tariff again, was in direct contradiction to the assertive message in the Proclamation. But, Wilentz writes:
The fundamental misperception behind these erroneous interpretations is that the two documents actually conflicted. The common view is that Jackson, by taking a "low tariff' position in the message, was loudly endorsing southern state rights, whereas by blasting nullification, he was endorsing a nationalist - indeed, "ultranationalist" - reading of the Constitution. But Jackson saw the issues of the tariff and nullification as completely separate. According to Jackson's strict reading of the Constitution, the tariff, subject to approval by the Congress, was always negotiable. Depending on which side could muster majorities in the House and Senate, tariff rates might rise one year and fall in another, in line with the normal pull and tug of a representative democracy. Nullification, however, was not negotiable; rather, it was an assault on the very foundations of the Union and democratic government. In the nullification proclamation, Jackson dissected the difference. ...
Above all, Jackson's nullification proclamation, far from a defense of "consolidation" or "ultranationalism," arose from Jackson's belief in democracy and in the principle, as he had expressed it in his first annual message, "that the majority is to govern." Strict construction of federal power was imperative lest a minority (like the owners, directors, and supporters of the Second Bank of the United States] bend the government toward advancing the minority's interests. But no state - let alone "a bare majority of voters in any one state" - could be allowed to repudiate laws based on explicitly delegated powers and duly enacted by Congress and the president. (my emphasis in bold)
It's always a pleasure to see when a writer gets Andrew Jackson right.
An Index to Confederate "Heritage" Month 2006 postings is available.