Editor’s note: This is the 24th installment in a serialized history of Charleston to commemorate the city’s 350th anniversary.
By early 1833, Charleston was caught between Nullifiers and Unionists, John C. Calhoun and Andrew Jackson … and state and federal armed forces.
No matter who prevailed, it appeared the city would be the first casualty.
Charleston hadn’t had a very good decade. In the aftermath of the Denmark Vesey episode, the city suffered a number of suspicious fires that locals speculated were the work of slaves primed for another revolt. These suspicions were fueled in part by paranoia and debates over the morality of slavery in other states.
Which planters feared eventually would threaten their livelihoods.
The Charleston economy was in decline by the late 1820s. Although record amounts of rice and cotton were exported from the city, local businesses weren’t sharing in the prosperity. Small retail businesses were shuttered, and some people moved away. The city quit growing.
Tariffs were blamed, as they tended to hurt Southern states more than those in the North. By 1827, lawyer and plantation owner Robert J. Turnbull — writing in the Charleston Mercury — popularized local use of the word “disunion.”
Which was just a fancy way of saying secession.
The tariffs, which Congress embraced after the War of 1812, were particularly grating on Charlestonians. The city split into factions of Unionists, who urged a measured response, and Nullifiers, who argued the state had the right to ignore any law it considered unconstitutional.
Vice President John C. Calhoun found himself in the middle of this fight. A native of the Upstate, Calhoun had been in federal politics most of his adult life — even though he’d opposed ratifying the U.S. Constitution because he felt it violated states’ rights.
Calhoun had served in Congress, as secretary of war under President James Monroe and vice president under President John Quincy Adams and, now, Andrew Jackson. Calhoun hoped to outlast Jackson and become president himself.
But he was a harsh and intense man, and he carefully kept his thoughts on slavery, tariffs and states’ rights quiet. Some of Calhoun’s opinions were controversial, even in the early 19th century.
Calhoun made nice with Jackson for a while, but their relationship fractured when his wife led the Cabinet’s other spouses against the secretary of war’s wife. They suspected she’d had an affair with the secretary while still married to her first husband, and they wouldn’t associate with an adultress.
Jackson, who’d defended his wife against similar charges, took great offense. The two men became estranged.
Calhoun, anonymously at first, began to work against Jackson’s tariffs. Part of his argument was that states had the undeniable right to nullify “unconstitutional” federal laws. The tariffs were harmful to South Carolina, but the vice president — like many Upstate natives — didn’t particularly care for Charleston.
His primary goal was to establish legal precedent for nullification, because that was the only way South Carolina could ever fend off a federal law outlawing slavery.
“(I)f there be no protective power in the reserved rights of the states they must in the end be forced to rebel, or, submit it to have their paramount interests sacrificed, their domestick institutions subordinated,” Calhoun wrote his friend, the Maryland politician Virgil Maxcy.
Most people weren’t as smart as Calhoun, and didn’t immediately make the connection. They just didn’t like tariffs … although they did like to fight.
As Robert Rosen notes in “A Short History of Charleston,” in 1831 the city hosted Unionist parades and Nullifier parades. Eventually, the city, like the rest of the state, leaned toward aggression. Before long, Nullifiers controlled the Statehouse.
By late 1832, South Carolina declared the tariffs of 1828 and 1832 unconstitutional and announced they wouldn’t be enforced in the state. President Jackson didn’t take it well. He said nullification was “incompatible with the existence of the Union” and “disunion by armed force is treason.”
Then he sent hundreds of federal troops to Fort Moultrie and Castle Pinckney. Charleston was in the crosshairs.
The governor mustered his own soldiers and demanded the federal troops withdraw. Jackson surprised the state, and kept the upper hand, by complying. South Carolina would have to fire the first shot.
It was a smart move, as none of the other states were ready to take South Carolina’s side … yet. Henry Clay brokered a compromise on tariffs, and South Carolina backed down.
The debate over nullification, and talk of disunion, would simmer for decades. And when it once again reached boiling point, Charleston would find itself back in the middle … and the first casualty.