Tea Party Tactics Lead Straight Back to Secession

tags: Tea Party, secession, nullification



Stephen Mihm, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, is a contributor to the Ticker.

As the government shutdown enters its second week, liberal commentators such as the Washington Post’s Colbert King have likened the political forces arrayed against the Affordable Care Act to a “New Confederacy,” akin to the slaveholding, secessionist Confederate States of America.

That’s not quite right: The occasion for secession in the 1860s was the election of Abraham Lincoln, not the passage of a bitterly contested federal law. If there’s an analogy between past and present, it’s not the shelling of Fort Sumter.

Instead, it’s an earlier political firestorm from the 1830s called the Nullification Crisis, which involved a controversial 1828 law that became known, in the fiery oratory of Jacksonian America, as the “Tariff of Abominations.”

The debates over Obamacare and the Tariff of Abominations emerge out of the same problem. Despite all the checks and balances embedded in our national government, it is inevitable that Congress will pass laws -- and that presidents will sign them -- that are detested by a sizable minority of the populace. When those laws subsequently pass judicial review, as the health-care legislation did, the law is here to stay. Unless the losing side can subsequently secure a repeal of the legislation, the disaffected have no choice but to obey the law.

John C. Calhoun of South Carolina thought otherwise. Even as he served as Andrew Jackson’s vice president, Calhoun was a vocal defender of states’ rights, and a sophisticated exponent of what has become known as the theory of the concurrent majority. This idea predated Calhoun and the 1830s, but it acquired new levels of clarity in his hands. After Congress passed the infamous Tariff of Abominations in 1828, Calhoun devised a system by which a political minority could contest a law that had otherwise passed muster with all three branches of government....



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