Opinion

Virginia had little-known role in another fight with the feds

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Print this page by Robert Powell

Virginia is suing the U.S. government over health care while it, in turn, is taking Arizona to court over immigration. Once again the states and the feds are butting heads over the dividing line between states’ rights end and national authority. Where is Henry Clay when you need him?

A native of Hanover County, Clay was known as the “Great Compromiser.” During a political career that included stints as a senator, speaker of the House, secretary of state and presidential candidate, Clay was the architect of well-known congressional deals that averted civil war in 1820 and 1850. But he also helped defuse tensions in a classic dispute over state and federal authority in which Virginia had a little-known role.

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book “American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House,” author Jon Meacham explores the most trying issue of Jackson’s presidency, the Nullification Crisis of the early 1830s.

South Carolina declared that a federal tariff on imported manufactured goods was “null and void” within its boundaries. The tariff was designed to protect American manufacturers, based mainly in the Northeast, from foreign competition. In South Carolina, the tariff raised costs in an agrarian economy that had been hit hard by a recent recession. Sen. John C. Calhoun of South Carolina argued that nullification was justified because tariff exceeded the powers granted to the federal government by the Constitution.

The president, who was known as “Old Hickory,” grew up in South Carolina, and Calhoun had served as vice president during Jackson’s first term. Nonetheless, Jackson despised Calhoun and his cause. The president feared that if states decided which federal laws they would obey, the union would soon fall apart. South Carolina, in fact, threatened to secede if it didn’t get its way.

Jackson was determined to rein in South Carolina, by force if necessary. Nonetheless, one of his biggest fears was that punishing South Carolina would arouse the sympathies of other Southern states that might join the Palmetto State in revolt.

Meacham reveals that Virginia, the region’s most populous state, was Jackson’s biggest worry. Virginia’s governor, John Floyd, was a friend of Calhoun and enemy of Jackson.  The governor threatened to “oppose [Jackson] with military force” if the federal troops headed for South Carolina marched through Virginia.

Floyd flirted with the idea of Virginia becoming the dominant state in a new Southern order should the union break up. That impulse alarmed neighboring states who warned that South Carolina might be trading Old Hickory’s tyranny for the Old Dominion’s.

Jackson’s tough stance, however, ultimately discouraged Virginia and other states from following South Carolina’s lead. The crisis ended not with a bang but a whimper. Clay brokered a bill in Congress that gradually lowered the tariff, allowing isolated South Carolina to back down but save face.

Nonetheless, the crisis had lasting effects. Jackson made the case that federal law has supremacy over state law and no state has the right to secede. Old Hickory’s legacy would have a major influence on another president who faced an even greater crisis less than 30 years later. He was called the “Rail Splitter.”


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