The nullification crisis was precipitated by South Carolina's bitterness at Jackson's failure to urge a major downward revision of tariff rates. Protective tariffs were considered unconstitutional, inexpedient, and inequitable throughout the South, but resentment was most extreme in South Carolina. There, the tariff was a great symbol of southern oppression, and nullification became the appropriate remedy. As devised by Calhoun, nullification's chief theoretician, in his Exposition (1828) and Fort Hill Address (1831), each state retained the final authority to declare federal laws unconstitutional. Acting through a convention, a state could pronounce a federal law null and void within its limits while remaining in the Union.
Jackson was a moderate on the tariff issue. He considered modest protection necessary to ensure the production of goods necessary for national defense and security, to establish a parity with European manufacturers, and to raise sufficient revenue to pay the national debt. He did not doubt the constitutionality of tariff protection. He vowed, therefore, to pursue "a middle and just course" on the tariff, a policy that was also politically expedient because of the lack of consensus among Democrats on the subject.
As for nullification, Jackson's contempt was un-reserved. He declared it an "abominable doctrine" that struck at the very roots of the Union, which he considered "perpetual," and it violated the principle of majority rule. He distinguished nullification from traditional states' rights principles. States' rights "will preserve the union of the states," Jackson explained, but nullification "will dissolve the Union."
In the spring of 1831, nullifier leaders went on the offensive. They organized themselves to take control of South Carolina and issued increasingly hostile attacks against the tariff and the administration. When Congress assembled in December, Jackson tried to defuse the controversy by recommending that tariff rates be lowered. Certainly pressure from South Carolina forced his hand on this matter, but tariff reform also comported with his evolving program. The approaching end of the national debt made excessive rates appear to be a special privilege of manufacturers, at the expense of ordinary citizens. High tariffs also provoked sectional strife and undermined "liberty and the general good."
Congress responded with a reform tariff in 1832, returning schedules to approximately what they had been in 1824. The measure was unacceptable to nullifiers, however, who won more than two-thirds of the seats in the South Carolina legislature the following October and called a state convention. Meeting in Charleston on 19 November 1832, the delegates approved the Ordinance of Nullification, which declared that the tariffs of 1828 and 1832 were null and void and that after 1 February 1833 it would be illegal to enforce the payment of import duties within the limits of South Carolina. The convention further warned that any use of force against the state would provide grounds for secession.
Jackson viewed the situation as grave. He regarded the nullifiers as reckless and disappointed demagogues who sought to ride to power on the ruin of the nation. Republican government was always susceptible to subversion from within, and the nullifiers seemed hell-bent on a separation of the Union. Jackson therefore developed a strategy designed to avoid provoking war while isolating and intimidating South Carolina. He sent arms and equipment to the loyal Unionists in the state, readied the army and navy, orchestrated expressions of patriotism throughout the nation, and promised prompt federal military intervention if nullifiers resisted federal laws and over-awed South Carolina loyalists.
When Congress convened in December 1832, Jackson made a new conciliatory gesture by announcing his commitment to further tariff reform. Yet it seems unlikely that he had much confidence that this would placate South Carolina. Instead, he probably hoped to isolate the state from southern moderates, who would now have little reason to sympathize with extremism.
Indeed, to show his determination to hold fast against nullification, Jackson issued the Nullification Proclamation on 10 December. Composed with the assistance of Kendall, Blair, and especially Secretary of State Edward Livingston, whom Jackson charged to use his "best flight of eloquence," the proclamation pronounced nullification " incompatible with the existence of the Union, contradicted expressly by the letter of the Constitution, unauthorized by its spirit, inconsistent with every principle on which it was founded, and destructive of the great object for which it was formed ." He urged South Carolinians to retrace their steps and called upon all Americans to give their undivided support to the Union and "to inspire new confidence in republican institutions."
Led by Van Buren's followers, moderates in Congress sought to end the conflict by supporting a lower tariff bill introduced by Gulian C. Verplanck of New York. But to Jackson the situation remained critical, and on 16 January he sent Congress a message, informing it of South Carolina's actions and requesting explicit confirmation of his right to employ state militias and federal forces against the dissidents.
The resulting Force Bill, as it became known, received bipartisan support—its floor manager in the Senate was Daniel Webster—and though many southerners disliked the measure, its passage was all but assured from the time it was introduced. Jackson considered the act necessary to "show to the world" that the United States was prepared "to crush in an instant" rebellion and treason. At the same time, he made no effort on behalf of the Verplanck bill, preferring to postpone tariff revision until nullification was put down.
Prospects for compromise brightened considerably toward the end of January 1833, when a public meeting in Charleston resolved to delay nullification until Congress completed deliberations on tariff reform. A few weeks later, Clay and Calhoun made public their agreement to underwrite a compromise tariff that would provide a face-saving retreat for the nullifiers. The Clay tariff proposal sacrificed the principle of tariff protection for time, by slowly bringing rates down to a revenue standard. Jackson conspicuously refused to shift his priorities by making Clay's bill an administration measure. But most legislators considered the Compromise Tariff of 1833 as essential as the Force Bill, and by the beginning of March, both proposals had passed Congress. Significantly, Jackson signed the Force Bill first, declaring that it gave "the death blow" to nullification.
The threat to the Union was over, and most Americans breathed a sigh of relief. Yet there were those who, like Jackson, had doubts that the new tariff would bring enduring sectional peace. In the spring of 1833, when some nullifiers denounced the new tariff and called for continued and unceasing efforts to protect the South and slavery from prejudicial legislation, Jackson predicted that the nullifiers, having failed to break up the Union on the tariff issue, would now grasp "the negro, or slavery question" as their "next pretext." Additional signs of restiveness in the South were evident among many Democrats, who considered Jackson an unreliable guardian of states' rights.
Even so, the nation had weathered the storm. Jackson had vindicated the Union, demonstrated that states' rights principles were compatible with nationalism, and displayed remarkable skill in wielding presidential power. One leading Democrat remarked at this time, "He is a much abler man than I thought him. One of those naturally great minds which seem ordinary except when the fitting emergency arises."
Shortly afterward, in June 1833, Jackson departed from Washington on a tour of the East Coast, providing himself with a refreshing break from the recent arduous responsibilities of office and permitting the country to renew its commitment to the Union through patriotic celebration. The response in Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and elsewhere was magnificent. The enthusiasm was genuine and almost universal. In Cambridge, Jackson was awarded an honorary degree of doctor of laws from Harvard. When Adams complained about this debasement of Harvard's reputation, he was met with a telling response from the president of Harvard: "As the people have twice decided that this man knows law enough to be their ruler, it is not for Harvard College to maintain that they are mistaken." But Jackson was compelled to cut short his itinerary when he collapsed from fatigue and bleeding from the lungs. He was taken by steamer back to Washington, where his life remained in danger for two days, before he rallied.