It is sometimes claimed that the principles of nullification are simply energized attempts to protect slave rights. It is also alleged that Thomas Jefferson and James Madison’s blueprint was simply used to perpetuate a “Neo-Confederate” mentality, one that acted to deprive individuals of liberty rather than protecting it.
These opinions couldn’t be farther from the truth. This is proven by definitively by history.
The southern aristocracy actually scorned nullification to such an extent that notable Confederate leaders wrote of its alarming affect, and distanced themselves from such principles. Similarly, southern states made it a point to assert that a dominant reason for which they seceded from the union was due to acts of nullification by the northern states.
These southern leaders and states had good reason to hate nullification: it prevented the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Notwithstanding the Fugitive Slave Clause in the Constitution (Article 4, Section 2), there were several aspects of this law that were considered incredibly dubious and unconstitutional. This Act forced northern states to return fugitive slaves on the basis of insinuation by the slave owner, which was often privy to lofty conjecture and guesswork. Federal commissioners that did not properly assist to arrest such runaway slaves were even liable to a fine of $1,000 as part of the law. In addition, individuals were to be subject to six months imprisonment and a $1,000 fine if they so much as provided food or shelter to runaway slaves.
When this system of enforcement was understandably viewed as treacherous, northern states lined up in resistance to the law. In Wisconsin, a crowd of supporters broke into the jail of fugitive slave Joshua Glover, liberating him and protecting his freedom. In Vermont, the Habeas Corpus law not only nullified and rendered the law void within its territory; it also made it illegal for individuals to assist federal officials with the capture of these slaves!
Jefferson Davis made a farewell address to the United States Senate when he learned that his home state of Mississippi had seceded from the union. In this speech, Davis noted:
“Nullification and secession, so often confounded, are, indeed, antagonistic principles. Nullification is a remedy which it is sought to apply within the Union, against the agent of the States. It is only to be justified when the agent has violated his constitutional obligations, and a State, assuming to judge for itself, denies the right of the agent thus to act, and appeals to the other states of the Union for a decision; but, when the States themselves and when the people of the States have so acted as to convince us that they will not regard our constitutional rights, then, and then for the first time, arises the doctrine of secession in its practical application.”
As we can see, Davis framed nullification as a principle that was malicious. Alexander Stephens, who would become the Vice President of the Confederacy, expressed similar views when considering nullification in 1858, saying that he “did not believe in the doctrine of nullification.” Stephens firmly categorized himself as “no nullifier” during a debate about South Carolina’s usage of nullification during the Andrew Jackson administration. It is clear that both individuals not only despised nullification, but also considered it unconstitutional.
The state legislature of South Carolina aligned its own opinion to that of Davis and Stephens. South Carolina’s Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Unionreads as follows:
“The States of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa, have enacted laws which either nullify the Acts of Congress or render useless any attempt to execute them. In many of these States the fugitive is discharged from service or labor claimed, and in none of them has the State Government complied with the stipulation made in the Constitution…. Thus the constituted compact has been deliberately broken and disregarded by the non-slaveholding States, and the consequence follows that South Carolina is released from her obligation.”
It is thus clear that in the years preceding the Civil War, nullification was much more commonly used by the northern states to obstruct the implementation of the objectionable law. The northern states acted to make the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 virtually impossible to impose. Going back farther, it was embraced by Connecticut and Massachusetts to oppose conscription attempts by the federal government during the War of 1812. It was also utilized by Massachusetts to oppose the Embargo Act of 1807, which was declared to be “not legally binding on the citizens of this State.”
Nullification is a tool we all have, and it is not associated with any form Neo-Confederate, slave power mentality. Its various incarnations have made enforcement of unconstitutional acts particularly challenging for the federal government, and sometimes even impossible. Understanding this, constitutional truth can triumph over federal deceit; it just requires the vigilance of individuals to act with harmonious ire and indignation.