In 1832-33, the state of South Carolina, in response to a high tariff passed by the federal government, argued that states were ultimately sovereign powers and that state legislatures, therefore, had the power to nullify laws passed by the federal government - that is, states had the power to rule federal laws null and void. South Carolina also threatened to secede from the Union if the federal government did not respect its rights.
In this speech, John C. Calhoun explains the principles that underlie
South Carolinàs Ordinance of Nullification. Calhoun offers the classic
states̀ rights argument. How does Calhoun defend his Doctrine of
Nullification - his belief that states may rule federal laws null and
void? And, how does he depict the relationship between the federal
government and state governments created by the Constitution?
The great and leading principle is, that the General Government emanated
from the people of the several states, forming distinct political communities,
and acting in their separate and sovereign capacity, and not from all the
people forming one aggregate political community; that the Constitution
of the United States is, in fact, a compact, to which each state is a Party...
and that the several states, or parties, have the right to judge the right
of its infractions... Be it called what it may State-right, veto,
nullification, or by any other name, I conceive it to be the fundamental
principle of our system, resting on facts as certain as the revolution
itself.. and I firmly believe that on its recognition depend the stability
and safety of our political institutions....
Whenever separate and dissimilar interests have been separately represented in government: whenever sovereign power has been divided in its exercise, the experience and wisdom of ages have devised but one mode by which such political organization can be preserved - to give each so-state the right to judge of its powers, with a negative or veto on the acts of others, in order to protect against the encroachments the interests it particularly represents.... So essential is this principle that, to withhold this right, where the sovereign power is divided, is to annul the division itself, and to consolidate, in the one left in the exclusive possession of that right, all powers of government....
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