Nullification to Save the Constitution

Henry Laurens Pinckney

Editor’s note: This article is excerpted from an 1833 4th of July Oration delivered by Henry L. Pinckney and is available in its entirety at The James McClellan Library.  This feature of our website contains over 100 primary documents on State’s Rights and federalism compiled by one of the founding members of the Abbeville Institute.

….But why is it that a day, so peculiarly dedicated to our ancestors, and endeared by the remembrance of their toils and triumphs, should have been made an occasion, in this community, of political contention and party strife? Why is it that on this political sabbath, the people of this city, descended, as they are, from the same illustrious source, and enjoying, as they do, the same glorious inheritance, no longer unite as brothers around the tombs of their fathers, nor offer fraternal and harmonious oblations upon the common altar of their common country? Is this unhappy division imputable to us? Did we denounce our brethren as unworthy of political communion with us? Or is it, as they kindly intimated by their conduct, that the purity of their patriotism would be sullied by continued confraternity with anarchists and rebels? What say you, Whigs? Do we indeed deserve the stigmas that have been cast upon us? Is our escutcheon really tarnished by a stain? Have we abandoned the principles of our fathers, or proved undeserving the proud legacy they bequeathed us? Have we forgotten the price at which they acquired our freedom, or shown ourselves unable to appreciate or unwilling to maintain it? Is there a man in this assembly who, calling himself a Whig, and boasting of the Whig blood which circles in his veins, yet knows in his heart that he has imbibed the doctrines and pursued the conduct of the Tories? Is there an individual here, who, calling himself a State Rights man, knows in his heart that, like another Cyrsilus, he advised implicit submission to federal usurpation, and would, if he could, have laid Carolina At its footstool? Or is there a single man amongst us who, whilst pretending to admire the principles of the Revolution, knows in his heart that he not only approves the new-fangled doctrines of the President, but that he justifies and supports that Bloody Bill, of which the great objects are to make the federal Executive a despot, and the people of Carolina serfs and vassals? No! fellow-citizens—such are not the principles of the State Rights party. We have not forgotten the precepts, or dimmed the glory, of our fathers. We have not deserted the standard, or disgraced the cause, of freedom. We come not here to kneel to power, but to resist oppression. We come not here to clank our chains in honour of the tyrant who imposed them, but to defy his power, and break his sceptre into atoms. Strike your harps, then, ye Whigs of Carolina, and sing the praises of Liberty! Raise your voices, play upon a loud toned instrument, shout with a shout of triumph, and sing the glories of the Revolution! Who more worthy to celebrate the deeds of the Whigs of’76, than the Whigs of’32? Who more worthy to call Washington their father, than those who approve his conduct by imitating his example? Who more worthy to eulogize Jefferson, than those who believe with him that “Nullification is the rightful remedy,” and who, acting as he did in ’98, have added fresh lustre to his fame by another signal triumph of his principles? Who more worthy to extol the character of Moultrie, than those who have fought and conquered under his own Palmetto, or to laud the services of Sumter, than those whose cause he consecrated with his dying breath? Who more worthy, in short, to speak of Carolina, than those who have plucked her drowning honour from the deep, or of all that is precious, and endearing, and important in “Liberty, the Constitution, and the Union,” than those who have nobly defended and preserved them all?

….But, of all those events, it is most strikingly analogous to our Revolutionary War. What argument was then urged in favor of Great-Britain, that has not since been employed to rivet the chain of federal usurpation? What stand was taken, or doctrine advocated, by the Whigs of’76, that has not been assumed and maintained by the present Whig party of the South? What act was passed or claim of supremacy asserted by the mother country over the colonies, that has not been imitated and exceeded by the federal government in relation to the Southern States?— The resemblance indeed is so singularly obvious and perfect, that history, when it records the oppressions of the federal government on the Southern States, and the flimsy tissue of sophistical cant by which they have been sustained, will but substantially repeat the causes in which the Revolution had its origin, and the miserable pleas and pretexts by which British tyranny was justified both in England and America. Oh little did our fathers think that such an analogy as this would ever have existed in the free republics of America! Little did they tfliftk, that those who struck so gloriously for freedom at Bennington and Bunker, would so soon have raised their arms for the political enslavement of the South, or that Massachusetts, whilst she was erecting a monument to the memory of Warren, would have woven a chain for the countrymen of Rutledge! Little did they dream, when South-Carolina declared her independence of Great-Britain, that she would so soon have been claimed as a colony by the Northern States, or, when she broke the scepter of a British King, that she would so soon have been admonished that she only lives and moves at the royal mercy of a federal Executive. In one word, little did they imagine that in less than half a century, the same sun which saw them contending, not only for their own, but for the common freedom of all the colonies, would have beheld their children defending Carolina, not against British, but American invasion; not against foreign, but domestic subjugation! Perhaps, could they have anticipated what we have realized—could they have foreseen that British tyranny, bad as it was, would only have been supplanted by federal oppression infinitely worse—that the Boston Port Bill would so soon have been followed by the Charleston,—and that whilst they were profusely expending their blood and treasure to relieve Massachusetts from the former, she would so soon have united with other States in subjecting Carolina to the latter—they might have hesitated, if not to make common cause against England, at least to enter into the confederacy, or to place themselves and their posterity under the domination of a government much more interested to oppress, and therefore much more oppressive in its action. But, ungifted with prescience, they could not penetrate futurity: conscious of their own purity and patriotism, they reposed unlimited confidence in the power and efficacy of a written Constitution; and so thoroughly, indeed, did they rely upon the honor and fidelity of their Northern allies for the faithful observance of the compact, that he who opposed the Union, was almost regarded as an enemy to Carolina, and even the warnings of the sagacious Lowndes, though they have been as literally verified as the predictions of Cassandra, were still treated, like hers, as the idle visions of fatuity.

….It is by no means my intention, however, to trouble you with a regular narration of our controversy with the government. The great question involved—whether the Constitution of the United States is a federative compact, or a consolidated government—is coeval with that instrument itself. Even in the federal Convention which framed the Constitution, a contest arose between the advocates of a strong central government, and those who insisted on retaining the separate rights and sovereignty of the States. The States Rights party triumphed. Every proposition to invest the government with the power of establishing corporations, of constructing internal improvements and protecting manufactures, and particularly of controlling and coercing the States, was successively and decisively defeated.  The State Rights party made a State Rights Constitution—a plain and simple instrument, in which only a few general powers are conferred upon the government, in which all powers not delegated are reserved to the States respectively, and in which the federal government is distinctly constituted as the common and limited agent of the whole and not as the superior of any. The Constitution thus constructed upon State Rights principles, was presented to the States as a federative ,compact: and, as such, it was ratified by the several States, each acting for itself in its own separate Convention, and in its sovereign capacity. The advocates of consolidation, however, though defeated in the Convention, soon obtained by artifice what they had been unable fairly to achieve. The Constitution consists of two classes of powers; those which are specifically enumerated—and a general authority to enact all laws which may be “necessary and proper” for the efficient execution of the specified powers. This was amply sufficient for the supporters of strong government. Did they desire to usurp a power which the Convention had refused, and of which not the shadow of a grant could be found in the Constitution? They had only to consider it as necessarily incidental to the proper discharge of some enumerated power. Thus, though Congress is authorized “to lay and collect taxes,” it was positively forbidden to establish corporations: yet they soon discovered that the incorporation of a bank was absolutely “necessary and proper” to the collection of the revenue, and, of course, to the efficient exercise of the taxing power. So, also, though Congress was expressly prohibited from constructing works of internal improvement in the States, it was ingeniously perceived that it is authorized to “promote the general welfare,” and that it was, therefore, “necessary and proper ‘ that it should enrich and beautify certain sections of the Union with the money of another. So, also, though Congress was prohibited from protecting manufactures, it was adroitly discovered that it possesses the power “to regulate commerce,” and that as the power to regulate implies the power to destroy, so it was “necessary and proper” for the regulation of the general commerce of the country that the Tariff of duties should be so arranged as to render the agriculture and commerce of the South totally subservient to the manufactures of the North! And so, again, though the Federal Government is expressly forbidden to coerce a State, yet, as it is made the duty of the President “to execute the laws,” our present Chief Magistrate has wisely implied and assumed the power to subjugate a member of the Union; and as Congress had grossly violated the Constitution by one.act of tyranny, so it has deemed it “necessary and proper” to enforce that act by the perpetration of another still more atrocious and tyrannical. It is impossible, indeed, for any reflecting man to compare the legislation of Congress on these subjects with the provisions of the Constitution, and the proceedings of the federal Convention, without being firmly convinced that the advocates of power, if not manfully arrested in their career of perversion, will succeed, if they have not already succeeded, in overthrowing the simple and beautiful system of our fathers, and in erecting upon its ruins a consolidated despotism.

….Thanks to the tyranny of Adams, and the philosophical intellect “of Jefferson, the friends of the Constitution are now perfectly familiar with the ” rightful remedy.” The great problem was, how federal usurpation could be effectually counteracted by a State, without involving either physical collision with the government, or a dissolution of the Union. The advocates of power insisted then, as now, that there is no alternative between implicit submission and actual war— that the federal government is the exclusive judge of the extent of the powers intrusted to it—and, carrying the servile principles of “passive obedience and non-resistance” to their utmost length, they also contended, that it not only has a right to legislate as it pleases, but to coerce the obedience of a State even to an oppressive and unconstitutional act, and that nullification, therefore, must necessarily terminate in anarchy and revolution. But the republicans of that day maintained, on the contrary, that the federal Constitution is a compact, to which the States are parties—that, as in all cases of compact in which there is no common umpire, each party must judge for itself, as well of infractions, as of the mode and measure of redress—and that in every violation of sufficient magnitude to require the interposition of the sovereign power of a State, a nullification of the unconstitutional act is the rightful remedy. These were the principles of Jefferson and Madison. These are the principles which are embodied in those immortal documents—those imperishable monuments of political liberty and wisdom—the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of ’98 and ‘9. It was under this banner that our republican fathers fought, and it was under this that they achieved that memorable and decisive revolution which hurled the elder Adams from the throne, with all the implements and engines of his tyranny, and placed the patriarch of republicanism in the Chair of State. Thus it is that Providence, in its wisdom, educes good from evil. He who peacefully dethroned a Dionysius, has taught us, equally peacefully, to chain the passions and check the fury of a Nero. The blow which was aimed at liberty in ’98, disclosed the means of preserving it in ’32. The same rightful remedy which consigned the Sedition Act to merited oblivion, has also scattered the Protective System to the winds!

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2 thoughts on “Nullification to Save the Constitution

  1. Charles Pinckney and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney were Framers, but not Thomas.

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