The threat is only implied in more than two-dozen state sovereignty bills making the rounds in legislatures across the country, except for a New Hampshire bill where the authors didn’t hold back. Any law infringing on the state’s right to self govern would trigger the dissolution of the nation: “All powers previously delegated to the United States of America by the Constitution … shall revert to the several states individually.”
The S.C. House of Representatives has approved a resolution with the same state’s rights concerns (but omiting the dire consequences), and the Senate is expected to soon take up a similar resolution.
S.C. State Rep. Michael Pitts (R-Laurens), who authored the House bill, says that it’s not as much a threat to the Union as it is a “wake-up call.” Federal mandates have strained his patience, particularly those laws relating to gun control and the treatment of illegal immigrants. Threats aren’t necessary, he says.
“If Washington doesn’t wake up and our economy keeps going the way it is going, I don’t think we’ll have to dissolve the union,” he says. “It won’t be able to stand.”
Political revolts against federal laws are nearly as old as the nation itself. From trading to slavery to civil rights, states have felt put-upon by Washington’s mandates. But it was a political standoff on Charleston’s shores in 1832 that framed the argument leading to the Civil War.
It was a stand for state’s rights that applied similar language to what we’re seeing in the present-day debates over sovereignty, says Civil War historian W. Scott Poole, an associate history professor at the College of Charleston.
“I was fairly horrified actually,” Poole says upon reading Pitt’s House bill. “It clearly harkens back to nullification.”
“King Street, King Street”
A federal tariff on European imports was crippling sections of the South Carolina economy in the late 1820s, and there was no relief following the election of President Andrew Jackson in 1828. The mounting tension led the state to nullify the tariff in November 1832. The challenge from South Carolina was likely one of the worst of Jackson’s presidency, writes Newsweek Editor-in-Chief Jon Meacham in American Lion, his 2008 book on Old Hickory’s years in office.
The state would continue to collect the fee for several months while it awaited other southern states to join the protest. In the meantime, Jackson ordered ships to the Charleston Harbor to ensure the tariff was collected and to protect federal interests in anticipation of armed revolt. But secessionists weren’t as well positioned in other states, and South Carolina nullifiers were left to stand alone. Even among its own residents, there were unionists in S.C. who felt strongly that the nation must be preserved.
In one particular exchange cited in American Lion, the political debate nearly led to a brawl in the streets of Charleston, according to a letter by the Rev. Samuel Cram Jackson.
A group of people supporting nullification “staked out King Street downtown,” and they sent word to federal supporters, called Unionists, who had gathered nearby that they should use Meeting Street or risk a confrontation, according to Meacham.
“The warning infuriated the Unionists,” Meacham writes, going on to quote the letter from Samuel Cram Jackson: “Their blood was up, to think that the nullifiers should dictate the street they should walk in. The cry resounded, ‘King Street, King Street.’ Before they left their hall, they organized into companies, chose their leaders, and promised implicit obedience. Both parties were armed with clubs and dirks.” It looked to be 500 nullifiers, compared to 1,000 Unionists. The confrontation was eventually resolved without a battle. According to Samuel Cram Jackson, “it was owing entirely to the firmness and wisdom of the leaders that the streets of Charleston did not run down with blood.”
Without support from other states, and citing the threat of federal force, South Carolina accepted a compromise tariff in early 1833, ending the political standoff.
Meacham notes a letter from Jackson soon after the resolution that reveals he understood the real goal of the state’s nullification posturing.
“The tariff was only the pretext, and disunion and southern confederacy the real object,” Jackson wrote. “The next pretext will be the negro, or slavery question.”
Back to the Future
As in 1832, some have claimed the modern argument over state sovereignty is in response to the crippling financial crisis, like the Republican Caucus of the state Senate.
“While Congress continues its irresponsible spending spree and grows our debts on the backs of hardworking South Carolina taxpayers, many Senate Republicans are pushing a resolution to reaffirm our state’s sovereignty under the United States constitution,” wrote spokesman Wesley Donehue in a recent caucus release.
But, once again, it is about more than just money.
Pitts notes he first designed his bill in response to mandates that the state provide education and emergency medical treatment to illegal aliens. And it goes beyond that to other concerns, like the threat of stricter gun control laws under the new Democratic administration, Pitts says, as well as Bush-era policies, like No Child Left Behind and the Patriot Act. Authors of sovereignty bills in other states have also made reference to federal abortion laws.
The U.S. government has been continuously overstepping its bounds since Roosevelt, Pitts says. “They send money to the states with strings attached.”
But courts have determined that it’s Washington’s prerogative to require states to spend the money it provides in a particular way, says College of Charleston political science professor William Moore. Today, states are even more dependent on federal aid than they were 200 years ago.
“If you have your hand in the government pocket, you’re going to have to abide by those requirements,” he says.
The threat of secession in the New Hampshire bill has doomed its passage as it was overwhelmingly rejected by the state House earlier this month, but South Carolina is poised to approve its sovereignty resolution, which avoids declaring such drastic consequences.
Pitts, an Army veteran and retired police officer, stresses he doesn’t want to see South Carolina secede from the Union, though he’s candid enough to note that “we have very little in common with the West Coast.”
The struggle in 1832 was only a prelude to the secessionist battle to come decades later. Jackson framed the argument for preserving the union in his response to South Carolina’s nullification threat.
“To say that any state may at pleasure secede from the union is to say that the United States is not a nation,” Jackson wrote. “Because the union was formed by a compact, it is said that the parties to that compact may, when they feel themselves aggrieved, depart from it; but it is precisely because it is a compact that they may not. A compact is a binding obligation.”
His words suggested a resolve in the heart of Washington that would truly be tested years later on the battlefield. Recollections of the blood spilled in that war between the states likely kept New Hampshire from approving its recent preamble to revolt. It will likely also keep other states like South Carolina from doing more than stomping their feet in dissatisfaction.