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1831- Nullification Crisis - History

1831- Nullification Crisis - History

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President Jackson signed into force a tariff that was more moderate then the previous Tariff of Abomination. The tariff was too high for South Carolinia, who declared the tariff null and void. Jackson warned that nullifcation was equivilant to treason and he received Congressional authorization to collect the tariff by force if neccessary.

The Crisis of Nullification began with the passage of the Tariff of Abomination in 1828. That initial tariff was designed to both protect the nascent American manufacturing industries located in the North, and to bring in additional income to the Federal government. The Tariff of Abominations was especially unpopular in the South, whose economy was primarily on cotton-based exports; and who imported much of their day-to-day goods. The Southern states felt the Tariff of Abominations unfairly penalized them and favored the North.

South Carolinians were struggling financially. The South Carolinians felt particularly aggrieved by the tariff. Their leading advocate, Vice President Calhoun, was out of favor with Jackson. As a result, Calhoun could do little to help the South Carolinians directly. In the summer of 1828, Calhoun quietly wrote the “South Carolina Exposition”. This treatise attacked the tariffs as unconstitutional. Calhoun further claimed that states had the right to void unconstitutional acts “But the existence of the right of judging of their powers, so clearly established from the sovereignty of States, as clearly implies a veto or control, within its limits, on the action of the General Government, on contested points of authority; and this very control is the remedy which the Constitution has provided to prevent the encroachments of the General Government on the reserved rights of the States; and by which the distribution of power, between the General and State Governments, may be preserved for ever inviolable, on the basis established by the Constitution. It is thus effectual protection is afforded to the minority, against the oppression of the majority....”

Calhoun contended that the tariffs were not constitutional, since the right to impose tariffs granted by the Constitution was solely for the purpose of raising revenue –– and not protecting domestic industries. By 1831 Calhoun was sufficiently frustrated that he decided to go public with his views on the nullification of the tariffs. When Calhoun presented his Fort Hill Address, he included much of what he had written in the South Carolina Exposition, adding the fact that he believes the Judiciary are not the arbiters of the Constitution.

The Jackson administration was worried about the direction that Calhoun was pushing South Carolina. Jackson was ambivalent about tariffs himself, and certainly would not mind seeing the Tariff of Abomination lowered. However, he certainly did not accept Calhoun’s view on state supremacy. The recently defeated president, John Quincy Adams stepped in to save the day. Adams returned to Washington to be a member of the House of Representatives. Given his stature, Adams was made Chairman of the Committee on Manufactures. Adams took his responsibility very seriously. He tried to work out a compromise that satisfied both the North and South. Adams put together a bill that moderately reduced tariffs on items that were not produced in the US. He drastically lowered the tariffs on cheap woolen items (material from which slave clothing was made). The bill known as the Tariff of 1832 was overwhelmingly approved, with significant southern support. Adams seemed to successfully put the issue of tariffs to rest.

The tariff of 1832 put the issue to rest I the rest of the South- but it failed to in South Carolina. To South Carolinians the largest slave holding state, the issue of tariffs reflected larger issues- the issue of state rights and the fear that the federal government could take actions against slavery. On November 24, 1832 South Carolina held Nullification Convention where it was declared that the tariffs of 1828 and 1831 were unconstitutional and would no longer be in effect in South Carolina starting in January 1833.

Jackson response was swift. In a proclamation issued two week later Jackson claimed that nullification was equivalent to secession, which could only done by armed force. He stated, “Do not be deceived by names. Disunion by armed force is treason”

Jackson immediately reinforced federal forts in South Carolina and ordered the armed forces to prepare to attack. Tensions were high in South Carolina with unionist opposing seperationalist. To deter South Carolinians from attacking Unionist in the midst he said to a South Carolinian congressman “if one drop of blood be shed in defiance of the laws of the United States, I will hand the first man of them I get my hands on from the first tree I can find”.

Jackson asked Congress for the power to collect tariffs off the coast of South Carolina in what became known as the force bill. At the same time Henry Clay put forth a compromise on tariffs that would gradually lower the tariffs. Jackson supported Clays actions and the combination of Jackson’s forceful response to the concept of nullification and his willingness to compromise on tariffs, ended the crisis for the moment- of course less then thirty years later the passions o display during this crisis led to the Civil war.

1831- Nullification Crisis - History

Toward the end of his first term in office, Jackson was forced to confront the state of South Carolina on the issue of the protective tariff. Business and farming interests in the state had hoped that Jackson would use his presidential power to modify tariff laws they had long opposed. In their view, all the benefits of protection were going to Northern manufacturers, and while the country as a whole grew richer, South Carolina grew poorer, with its planters bearing the burden of higher prices.

The protective tariff passed by Congress and signed into law by Jackson in 1832 was milder than that of 1828, but it further embittered many in the state. In response, a number of South Carolina citizens endorsed the states' rights principle of "nullification," which was enunciated by John C. Calhoun, Jackson's vice president until 1832, in his South Carolina Exposition and Protest (1828). South Carolina dealt with the tariff by adopting the Ordinance of Nullification, which declared both the tariffs of 1828 and 1832 null and void within state borders. The legislature also passed laws to enforce the ordinance, including authorization for raising a military force and appropriations for arms.

Nullification was only the most recent in a series of state challenges to the authority of the federal government. There had been a continuing contest between the states and the national government over the power of the latter, and over the loyalty of the citizenry, almost since the founding of the republic. The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions of 1798, for example, had defied the Alien and Sedition Acts, and in the Hartford Convention, New England voiced its opposition to President Madison and the war against the British.

In response to South Carolina's threat, Jackson sent seven small naval vessels and a man-of-war to Charleston in November 1832. On December 10, he issued a resounding proclamation against the nullifiers. South Carolina, the president declared, stood on "the brink of insurrection and treason," and he appealed to the people of the state to reassert their allegiance to that Union for which their ancestors had fought.

When the question of tariff duties again came before Congress, it soon became clear that only one man, Senator Henry Clay, the great advocate of protection (and a political rival of Jackson), could pilot a compromise measure through Congress. Clay's tariff bill -- quickly passed in 1833 -- specified that all duties in excess of 20 percent of the value of the goods imported were to be reduced by easy stages, so that by 1842, the duties on all articles would reach the level of the moderate tariff of 1816.

Nullification leaders in South Carolina had expected the support of other Southern states, but without exception, the rest of the South declared South Carolina's course unwise and unconstitutional. Eventually, South Carolina rescinded its action. Both sides, nevertheless, claimed victory. Jackson had committed the federal government to the principle of Union supremacy. But South Carolina, by its show of resistance, had obtained many of the demands it sought, and had demonstrated that a single state could force its will on Congress.

Nullification Crisis

Wikimedia Commons

Thirty years before the Civil War broke out, disunion appeared to be on the horizon with the Nullification Crisis. What started as a debate over the Tariff of Abominations soon morphed into debates over state and federal sovereignty and liberty and disunion. These debates transformed into a national crisis when South Carolina threatened secession, an explicit threat of disunion. However, the United States narrowly avoided a civil war through compromise and the reaffirmation of executive authority.

Since 1816, the United States used tariffs to protect American industry against foreign competition. Protective tariffs formed the foundation of Henry Clay’s American System which served as the main economic policy of the United States until President Andrew Jackson’s election. The first tariff passed was relatively low, but it progressively rose each year until 1828, with what became known as the Tariff of Abominations. Representative Silas Wright, an ally of Jackson, first proposed this tariff in 1828 as a ploy to help Old Hickory’s presidential campaign. The tariff raised duties to between 30-50% on certain raw materials, which protected the Mid-Atlantic and western states which produced these raw materials, but left southern states—and its cotton and tobacco industry—unprotected. In retaliation for the high tariff, foreign markets blocked the sale of American cotton, the South’s chief export and the cornerstone of their economy which caused economic issues in the South. Despite the South’s fervent objection to this tariff, Jackson maintained southern support for his campaign and by backing this tariff garnered support from states such as Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, Kentucky, and Missouri, which proved to be vital in his campaign and helped him win the presidency. In 1828, Jackson’s soon to be Vice President and ally John C. Calhoun of South Carolina wrote an anonymously published a pamphlet titled “Exposition and Protest” which passionately criticized the tariff and laid the groundwork for nullification theory.

Despite southern objections, the tariff passed and went largely forgotten in American consciousness until an exchange on the Senate floor between South Carolinian Senator Robert Hayne and Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster in January 1830 which reopened the debate. Hayne argued that state sovereignty permitted the nullification of federal rulings when those rulings infringed on states’ rights, going so far as to argue for secession in order to preserve state and personal liberty. Webster famously responded with “liberty and union, now and forever, one and inseparable,” to Webster and many other unionists, people, not states comprised the union. Nullification propagated secession which in turn would destroy the union: the sole protector of liberty. Thus, to preserve liberty, one must preserve the union. Nullifiers did not believe in this link between union and liberty but rather argued that it was the states alone which protected individual freedoms from an overreaching federal government.

The issue of nullification divided the White House as Vice President Calhoun staunchly supported states’ rights and served as a spokesman for nullification by revealing he wrote “Exposition and Protest.” Jackson, on the other hand, supported states’ rights, but not at the expense of the Union and once stated he “would rather die in the last ditch than see the union dismantled.” The Nullification Crisis was one in a series of issues that destroyed Jackson and Calhoun’s relationship.

In 1832 Congress replaced the Tariff of Abominations with a lower tariff however, that was not enough to satisfy the South Carolinians who had made faint threats of nullification since 1828. Almost immediately following Jackson’s re-election in 1832, South Carolina, fortified by the recent election of many state nullifiers, formed a convention that denounced the Tariff of Abominations and its 1832 revision and formally adopted an Ordinance of Nullification. This ordinance declared those tariffs null and void and forbade the collection of duties within the boundary of the state following February 1, 1833. Finally, the ordinance declared that any act of force by Congress against South Carolina would lead to its immediate secession from the union.

In the past Jackson simply acknowledged the supremacy of union over state sovereignty without taking any direct action however, this explicit threat of secession forced him to act against these nullifiers. Jackson advised his Secretary of War Lewis Cass to prepare for war, and over the course of a few months, Cass complied arms and enlisted a militia in preparation to enter South Carolina to enforce the tariff and prevent secession. During his war preparations, Jackson engaged in a national public relations campaign to discredit nullification in the mind of the American public. Jackson gave speeches against nullification that vehemently denounced South Carolina and promoted unionism. Jackson also gave a special speech to Congress asking them to reaffirm his authority to use force to ensure the execution of United States laws, which Congress complied with in a bill aptly known as Jackson’s force bill.

Despite his preparations, Jackson did not desire a civil war, but rather hoped the nullifiers would back down against his threats. In response to Jackson’s vigorous actions, South Carolinians delayed the enactment of their ordinance. Jackson, in turn, discretely supported Speaker of the House Henry Clay’s efforts to lower the tariff that caused this crisis. On March 2, 1833, Congress passed both Jackson’s and Clay’s tariff reduction. In response, South Carolinians rescinded their Ordinance of Nullification and the crisis passed. Many parties claimed to be the victor of this crisis, Calhoun and his nullifiers for receiving a tariff reduction, Clay for his compromise that prevailed however, Jackson remained the true victor as he reaffirmed his executive authority and prevented a potential civil war days before his second inauguration.

Although not the first crisis that dealt with state authority over perceived unconstitutional infringements on its sovereignty, the Nullification Crisis represented a pivotal moment in American history as this is the first time tensions between state and federal authority almost led to a civil war. Ultimately, the spirit of union prevailed, and Americans reached a compromise which avoided war. However, this crisis laid the groundwork for the secession theory that reemerged in the 1850s at a time of heightened sectional tensions. By then the United States would not be so lucky, and debates over slavery and the legitimacy of secession would plunge Americans into a horrific civil war.

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February 22, 2013 The Nullification Crisis The Nullification Crisis was a revolt by the citizens against Andrew Jackson and the Union, whereby they sought liberty and the state of being free, including various social, political, and economic privileges. This attempt to revolt against Jackson failed, and their seceding from the country was not granted. In these efforts to secede, they sought liberty and worked together as a state to gain what they believed to be free and include various privileges.

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This anonymous 1833 political caricature (a) represents President Andrew Jackson as a despotic ruler, holding a scepter in one hand and a veto in the other. Contrast the image of “King Andrew” with a political cartoon from 1831 (b) of Jackson overseeing a scene of uncontrollable chaos as he falls from a hickory chair “coming to pieces at last.”

Whigs championed an active federal government committed to internal improvements, including a national bank. They made their first national appearance in the presidential election of 1836, a contest that pitted Jackson’s handpicked successor, Martin Van Buren, against a field of several Whig candidates. Indeed, the large field of Whig candidates indicated the new party’s lack of organization compared to the Democrats. This helped Van Buren, who carried the day in the Electoral College. As the effects of the Panic of 1837 continued to be felt for years afterward, the Whig press pinned the blame for the economic crisis on Van Buren and the Democrats.

Explore a Library of Congress collection of 1830s political cartoons from the pages of Harper’s Weekly to learn more about how Andrew Jackson was viewed by the public in that era.

Section Summary

Andrew Jackson&rsquos election in 1832 signaled the rise of the Democratic Party and a new style of American politics. Jackson understood the views of the majority, and he skillfully used the popular will to his advantage. He adroitly navigated through the Nullification Crisis and made headlines with what his supporters viewed as his righteous war against the bastion of money, power, and entrenched insider interests, the Second Bank of the United States. His actions, however, stimulated opponents to fashion an opposition party, the Whigs.

What was the Impact of the Nullification Crisis?

The impact the Nullification Crisis had on the political landscape of antebellum America may not have been very apparent, but it was profound. The philosophical battle between Unionism and state’s right first manifested itself during the crisis, but would continually grow until the Civil War finally happened. The philosophical battle between the concepts also became more heated and personal, with the Nullifiers being viewed as a threat to the Union by the Unionists. [8]

Conversely, the Nullifiers/state’s rights advocates became much more entrenched in their positions, especially in the state of South Carolina. In 1834, the Nullifiers who ran the state-required state militia and civil officeholders to swear an oath of loyalty to the state of South Carolina over the federal government. [9] It was merely a sign of things to come.

For President Jackson, the Nullification proved to be a setback to his expansive political agenda. The coalition he worked so hard to build was fractured, as many state’s rights Democrats quickly soured on the ever-capricious president over his handling of the conflict. Calhoun took many of his supporters and formed what many at the time would have seen as an unlikely alliance with Henry Clay, which was metaphorically spitting in Jackson’s face. [10]

Of all the major players involved in the Nullification Crisis, Henry Clay probably emerged from it the victor. The compromise he crafted cemented his position in American history as a savvy negotiator and compromiser who was only motivated by the best interests of the country. Clay used this political capital, and the new alliances he formed during the Nullification Crisis, to found the Whig Party in 1834 from the remnants of the National Republican Party, along with the Nullifier Democrats, some former Jackson supporters, and the Anti-Mason Party. [11]


Jackson’s veto of the bank and his Specie Circular helped galvanize opposition forces into a new political party, the Whigs , a faction that began to form in 1834. The name was significant opponents of Jackson saw him as exercising tyrannical power, so they chose the name Whig after the eighteenth-century political party that resisted the monarchical power of King George III. One political cartoon dubbed the president “King Andrew the First” and displayed Jackson standing on the Constitution, which has been ripped to shreds.

This anonymous 1833 political caricature (a) represents President Andrew Jackson as a despotic ruler, holding a scepter in one hand and a veto in the other. Contrast the image of “King Andrew” with a political cartoon from 1831 (b) of Jackson overseeing a scene of uncontrollable chaos as he falls from a hickory chair “coming to pieces at last.”

Whigs championed an active federal government committed to internal improvements, including a national bank. They made their first national appearance in the presidential election of 1836, a contest that pitted Jackson’s handpicked successor, Martin Van Buren, against a field of several Whig candidates. Indeed, the large field of Whig candidates indicated the new party’s lack of organization compared to the Democrats. This helped Van Buren, who carried the day in the Electoral College. As the effects of the Panic of 1837 continued to be felt for years afterward, the Whig press pinned the blame for the economic crisis on Van Buren and the Democrats.


Congress established the Bank of the United States in 1791 as a key pillar of Alexander Hamilton’s financial program, but its twenty-year charter expired in 1811. Congress, swayed by the majority’s hostility to the bank as an institution catering to the wealthy elite, did not renew the charter at that time. In its place, Congress approved a new national bank—the Second Bank of the United States—in 1816. It too had a twenty-year charter, set to expire in 1836.

The Second Bank of the United States was created to stabilize the banking system. More than two hundred banks existed in the United States in 1816, and almost all of them issued paper money. In other words, citizens faced a bewildering welter of paper money with no standard value. In fact, the problem of paper money had contributed significantly to the Panic of 1819.

In the 1820s, the national bank moved into a magnificent new building in Philadelphia. However, despite Congress’s approval of the Second Bank of the United States, a great many people continued to view it as tool of the wealthy, an anti-democratic force. President Jackson was among them he had faced economic crises of his own during his days speculating in land, an experience that had made him uneasy about paper money. To Jackson, hard currency—that is, gold or silver—was the far better alternative. The president also personally disliked the bank’s director, Nicholas Biddle.

A large part of the allure of mass democracy for politicians was the opportunity to capture the anger and resentment of ordinary Americans against what they saw as the privileges of a few. One of the leading opponents of the bank was Thomas Hart Benton, a senator from Missouri, who declared that the bank served “to make the rich richer, and the poor poorer.” The self-important statements of Biddle, who claimed to have more power that President Jackson, helped fuel sentiments like Benton’s.

In the reelection campaign of 1832, Jackson’s opponents in Congress, including Henry Clay, hoped to use their support of the bank to their advantage. In January 1832, they pushed for legislation that would re-charter it, even though its charter was not scheduled to expire until 1836. When the bill for re-chartering passed and came to President Jackson, he used his executive authority to veto the measure.

The defeat of the Second Bank of the United States demonstrates Jackson’s ability to focus on the specific issues that aroused the democratic majority. Jackson understood people’s anger and distrust toward the bank, which stood as an emblem of special privilege and big government. He skillfully used that perception to his advantage, presenting the bank issue as a struggle of ordinary people against a rapacious elite class who cared nothing for the public and pursued only their own selfish ends. As Jackson portrayed it, his was a battle for small government and ordinary Americans. His stand against what bank opponents called the “ monster bank ” proved very popular, and the Democratic press lionized him for it. In the election of 1832, Jackson received nearly 53 percent of the popular vote against his opponent Henry Clay.

In General Jackson Slaying the Many Headed Monster (1836), the artist, Henry R. Robinson, depicts President Jackson using a cane marked “Veto” to battle a many-headed snake representing state banks, which supported the national bank. Battling alongside Martin Van Buren and Jack Downing, Jackson addresses the largest head, that of Nicholas Biddle, the director of the national bank: “Biddle thou Monster Avaunt [go away]!! . . .”

Jackson’s veto was only one part of the war on the “monster bank.” In 1833, the president removed the deposits from the national bank and placed them in state banks. Biddle, the bank’s director, retaliated by restricting loans to the state banks, resulting in a reduction of the money supply. The financial turmoil only increased when Jackson issued an executive order known as the Specie Circular, which required that western land sales be conducted using gold or silver only. Unfortunately, this policy proved a disaster when the Bank of England, the source of much of the hard currency borrowed by American businesses, dramatically cut back on loans to the United States. Without the flow of hard currency from England, American depositors drained the gold and silver from their own domestic banks, making hard currency scarce. Adding to the economic distress of the late 1830s, cotton prices plummeted, contributing to a financial crisis called the Panic of 1837. This economic panic would prove politically useful for Jackson’s opponents in the coming years and Van Buren, elected president in 1836, would pay the price for Jackson’s hard-currency preferences.

The South Carolina convention reconvened and repealed its Nullification Ordinance on March 15, 1833, but three days later, nullified the Force Bill as a symbolic gesture of principle. The crisis was over, and both sides found reasons to claim victory.

The Nullification Crisis helped lead to the Civil War because it boiled sectional tensions between the North and he South to the surface. For instance, economic differences made it possible for the South to become dependent on the North for manufactured goods.

Watch the video: Age of Jackson: Crash Course US History #14 (August 2022).