Nullification is the formal suspension by a state of a federal law within its borders. The concept was first given voice by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, in opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts. The principle was accepted by the Hartford Convention of New Englanders in 1814 as well as many in the South, who saw it as protection against federal encroachment on their rights. It remained a point of contention and reached a crisis in 1832.
The Tariff of 1832, despite pleas from Southern representatives, failed to moderate the protective barriers erected in earlier legislation. The South Carolina passed an ordinance of nullification on November 24, 1832, and threatened to secede if the federal government attempted to collect those tariff duties. The ordinance stated:
And we, the people of South Carolina, to the end that it may be fully understood by the Government of the United States, and the people of the co-States, that we are determined to maintain this, our Ordinance and Declaration, at every hazard, Do further Declare that we will not submit to the application of force, on the part of the Federal Government, to reduce this State to obedience; but that we will consider the passage by Congress, of any act... to coerce the State, shut up her ports, destroy or harass her commerce, or to enforce the acts hereby declared null and void, otherwise than through the civil tribunals of the country, as inconsistent with the longer continuance of South Carolina in the Union: and that the people of this state will thenceforth hold themselves absolved from all further obligation to maintain or preserve their political connection with the people of the other States, and will forthwith proceed to organize a separate Government, and do all other acts and things which sovereign and independent States may of right do....
Robert Hayne (of Webster-Hayne Debate fame) had resigned from the Senate to run for governor of South Carolina; John C. Calhoun resigned the vice presidency and took Hayne’s seat in the Senate. These two men spearheaded the nullification drive. A real possibility of secession and war existed.
Jackson immediately offered his thought that nullification was tantamount to treason and quickly dispatched ships to Charleston harbor and began strengthening federal fortifications there. Congress supported the president and passed a Force Bill in early 1833 which authorized Jackson to use soldiers to enforce the tariff measures.
Meanwhile Henry Clay again took up his role as the Great Compromiser. On the same day the Force Bill passed, he secured passage of the Tariff of 1833. This latter measure provided for the gradual reduction of the tariff over 10 years down to the level which had existed in 1816. This compromise was acceptable to Calhoun who had not been successful with finding any other state to support him on nullification. Jackson signed both measures.
South Carolina repealed its nullification measure, but then spitefully nullified the Force Bill. Jackson wisely ignored that action. Although the issue died down, the idea did not entirely go away and gradually morphed into the principle of nullification of the union itself, leading eventually to the secession of Southern states and the formation of the Confederacy.