The Disruption of the Nullification Crisis: A Reassessment

This paper will address the conference theme of business in the time of disruption through the 1832 Nullification Crisis. In response to disunionist opposition to the 1828 tariff in South Carolina, local political affiliations formed around nullification and unionism, as unionists harnessed the powers of the federal government to combat local measures that would interfere with the national economy, while nullifiers marshalled state militia to resist economic policy that interfered with local prosperity. The conflict has been depicted as the product of regional angst, a subversive conspiracy, a popular uprising, and as the paranoid machinations of jealous slaveholders. At root, it was an ideological clash over political economy, which many of the era’s political commentators, and early historians, understood in terms of northern versus southern, or manufacturing versus agricultural, interests. The nullification crisis and its resolution, however, cannot be explained by these oppositions, nor by the antebellum configuration of cotton, slaveholder politics, industrial growth, and finance that the new historians of capitalism have highlighted as symbiotic components of American capitalism. This paper will examine the local, national and international business interests and political connections of some of the major unionist and nullification leaders to reveal the importance of an unexamined range of economic activities, including real estate, rice planting, banking, and mining in Mexico and Georgia, in determining how local political affiliations and interstate sympathies formed in this crisis. The business activities and associations of unionists William Drayton and Joel Roberts Poinsett and nullifiers John C. Calhoun and James Hamilton, Jr. reflected the limitations of national parties in shaping one’s position on economic issues. They also reveal the importance of a changing constellation of business interests and alliances in determining disruptions around a host of economic issues including tariffs, banking, and internal improvements, all of which split parties and regions.