Union at Risk, historian Richard Ellis confronts the most singularly formative event of Andrew Jackson's two presidential terms: The Nullification Crisis of 1832 and 1833. In response to tariffs enacted by the Congress in Washington in the late 1820s, the State of South Carolina declared their legal independence from national laws. Avoiding the tariffs, South Carolina poses a real threat to the Jackson administration with serious national repercussions; responsively, Jackson issued a Proclamation asserting the foremost power of the Federal government.
Because legal action means little to a state already refusing Washington's insistence, Jackson found executive support in the Force Act, allowing national laws to be enforced on a state-wide basis with troops. The assuagement of the crisis by Henry Clay brought solvent end to this doctrinal crisis between states' rights and national policy. Richard Ellis argues that this decisive moment in 19th century politics not only connected to other areas of the Jackson administration, from National Bank conflict to Supreme Court relations and Indian policy, but lays the foundation for the sectional conflict integral to the ideology of the Civil War.
Traditional approach to history proffers an idea among most historians that Andrew Jackson's presidency was characterized by a coherent ideological politic, with the Nullification Crisis standing out as a singular anomaly. This perspective approaches South Carolina as a perniciously petulant adolescent in the national arena, pushing towards rebellion while disagreeing forces brought questions of unionism and nationalism to the greater national attention than that of monopolies and social and corporate special industries. Jackson countered with a united front, isolating the South Carolina political outlaws with the Compromise Tariff of 1833 and peacefully resolved crisis.
Ellis marks a different approach. Instead of aligning himself with the more traditional views, he purports the Nullification as "one of the central events" (ix) shaping the Jacksonian Democracy when examining constitutional and ideological facets of the tiered American government. Ellis reminds the historian that the South Carolina rebels were not cut off from support, as was intended by Washington, but instead found further allies throughout the South and among certain individuals and parties in the North. In fact, Ellis argues, the whole saga did not turn out so much in Jackson's interest at all; "at the end of the crisis," he wrote, "it was Jackson, not the nullifiers, who was isolated." (180) Washington's blundering, Ellis insists, allowed for South Carolina to seek and gain the sympathy of other powers that ended more in their favor and that of Calhoun, not Jackson.
As he marches through the familiar history of this prominent moment in the American fabric, he approaches old problems with new answers. The most notable predicament presented by the Nullification Crisis is reconciling the imperative defensive of the country exhibited by Andrew Jackson and the president's sincere conviction to the principles of states' rights. Through investigatory history, he makes reliable discourse into the revolutionary period to trace the doctrinal intent of the states' rights ideology, concluding with the theory that the nullification was largely a battle between different approaches to states' rights conceptualization, rather than an argument between sectionalism and nationalism.
Ellis presents a vision of Jackson as a president who believed in majority rule, divided sovereignty, decentralized power, and the Union. His opponent in Nullification, Calhoun, urged for state sovereignty, minority rights, and the legitimacy of secession. Each advocated states' rights, but they did so differently; each politician exhibited his approach in a manger congruent to their larger thought, not like the eventual anomaly Nullification is presented to be by traditional thought. According to Ellis, though, Jackson's major misstep was in underestimating the conviction of South Carolina's principled states' rights program.
While he calculated his approach to the South Carolina situation with centralized strength through the Proclamation and power through the Force Bill, he did not take into account the power of South Carolina's leaders to use the opportunity to turn the tables from the national debate of nullification to that of tariff reform and the right of the Executive to compel a state to remain in the Union. The new conversation, as spun by Carolinian pundits, struck a powerful chord throughout the South, and Jackson found many of his states' rights companions in the North citing the legitimacy of their cause. Ellis…