Book Review: A Critical Study Of Nullification In South Carolina

A Critical Study Of Nullification In South Carolina, by David Franklin Houston

This book is an interesting one in that it provides a scholarly and deeply historical look at the reasons why South Carolina became such a noted state in the desire to nullify federal laws and eventually attempt to secede from the United States.  In any study of the politics of the antebellum South, it is clear that South Carolina is the most radical of these states in defending the interests of the slave power, but how it was that South Carolina first became triggered with regards to its fear and suspicion about federal power when it was initially part of the core pro-Federalist part of the South to begin with is a mystery to many readers and something that this author does a good job discussing at some length.  The case is an interesting one and so there is a lot to appreciate here.  As someone who is always looking to read more information on the Civil War I was pleased by what I found here in terms of the author’s discussion of the local politics of South Carolina that eventually compelled John C. Calhoun, in an effort to preserve his political base, to turn away from nationalism towards the states’ rights position that he is most famous for holding.

This book is a bit more than 150 pages long and is divided into 8 chapters with various appendices that put the material of the book in context.  After a preface, the author begins with a discussion of the broad construction of the Constitution and its appeal in South Carolina during the optimistic period between 1789-1823 when the Rutledges and then Calhoun and his cohort rose to power in the state (1).  After that the author discusses the various ideas about the theories of the Constitution that were held in the state between 1789 and 1828 as the mood of the state darkened towards the national interests as a whole (2).  After that the author discusses the immediate causes of nullification (3) and South Carolina’s change of attitude towards the nation as a whole (4).  This leads to a discussion of the formulas of nullification that were advanced within the state by its political elites (5) as well as the progress of the nullification sentiment from unease to the threat of rebellion (6).  The author discusses the response of Jackson and Clay and others to South Carolina’s growing intransigence (7) and then the significance of nullification in understanding the later crises that led to the Civil War (8).  The appendices of the book contain Calhoun’s statement of his constitutional principles (i), the Ordinance nullifying the Force Bill (ii), protests against protective tariffs in the 1840’s (iii, iv, vi), the re-affirmation of nullification by South Carolina in 1842 (v), and a bibliography of nullification (vii), after which the book ends with an index.

At the basis of South Carolina’s turn towards nullification there appears to be a deep economic fear about the failure of South Carolina to economically progress in the decades of the 1820’s and beyond.  The depopulation of the state as the declining fertility of the soul led enterprising scions of the South Carolina aristocracy to move South (Florida) and west (Alabama, Mississippi, Lousiana, Texas, etc) appears to have led to a growing siege mentality on the part of South Carolina’s voters, which was responded to by a generation of political leaders that began to replace the early nationalists that Calhoun had grown up with.  Calhoun was sensitive enough to respond to this before being voted out of office and ended up being the voice of his state, which was hostile to the economic interests of the North and deeply concerned about any financial changes that would make plantation slavery less profitable for those aristocrats who remained in power on the state and local level and whose political opinions were essential for anyone who wished to maintain a power base within the state.  Even if the tariff of 1828 and not slavery was the precipitating cause of the Nullification crisis discussed here, slavery was still at the root of the economic malaise that hurt the state as increased supply of staples given the expansion of the plantation system led to decreased profits for slaveowners in the state.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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