Calhoun's Letter to L.W. Tazewell

John C. Calhoun to Littleton Waller Tazewell, August 25, 1827

John C. Calhoun, in 1827, the year before the 1828 Tariff of Abominations, observed the rising tide of political agitation in the North for tariff protection. He immediately recognized that tariff benefits for the North must come at the expense of the South and that the division would threaten the Union.

Calhoun was Vice-President of the United States, serving in the administration of President John Quincy Adams. On August 25, 1827, he was at home in South Carolina during the long adjournment between Congresses. On that day, he wrote a letter to Littleton Waller Tazewell, a Senator from Virginia.

Tazewell was respected by his contemporaries for his "immense intellect" and knowledge of the law. It was said of him that he "was the peer in intellect of any of the distinguished men with whom he came in contact, whether in the United States Senate, the Virginia Convention of 1829-'30, or elsewhere. This is no light praise. Those were the days of Webster and of Calhoun, and of Marshall."

Tazewell had apparently also read the news of Lewis Tappan's Harrisburg tariff convention and worried about its consequences for the nation. Judging from Calhoun's response, Tazewell had written to Calhoun of his concerns. Calhoun was obviously delighted to find a agreeable friend who was already alert to a danger not generally recognized.

Pendleton, 25th August 1827

Nothing can be more agreeable to me, than an exchange of thoughts with one who has reflected so attentively on the operation of those powerful causes, which are so deeply influencing our political institutions, but which, as yet, attract so little observation.

Calhoun recognized that the tariff men aimed at a weak part of the protections that the U.S. Constitution afforded to the country's citizens. There was no Constitutional limitation on tariff rates. By legislatively ratcheting up the tariff rate, one portion of the country could profit at the expense of another.

I concur entirely with your views, in relation to the Harrisburgh convention. It is indeed a portentous sign of the times, and must be followed with the most marked consequences. To the reflecting mind, it clearly indicates the weak part of our system, and the corruption to which it must lead, unless speedily corrected. The part least guarded, requires the strongest guards. The freedom of debate, the freedom of the press, the division of power into the three branches, with responsibility, afford, in the main, efficient security to the constituents against rulers, but in an extensive country with diversified and opposing interests, another and not less important remedy is required, the protection of one portion of the people against another.

Calhoun foresaw that a political coalition of diverse interests could gain the balance of power to oppress a minority.

This is the point of the greatest danger, and, if not guarded with the greatest vigilance, combinations will be formed on separate and opposing interests, which will end in despotism, as complete, as that of a single, and irresponsible ruler. Whatever impediments the regular institutions of the country may present, to the formation of such despotic combinations, will be surmounted by new schemes of associations, which in time will become so firmly established, as to supersede virtually the forms of the Constitution itself.

Lewis Tappan's genius lay in conceiving the Harrisburg convention that would harness in coalition the various interests of wool, woolens, iron, steel, cotton goods, flax and hemp and distilled spirits. It was a powerful political combination. It filled Calhoun with dread of the day it should gain the balance of power. It set him to thinking whether there was a remedy for the problem.

The Harrisburgh Convention has commenced this state of things. It is the selected instrument to combine with greater facility the great geographical Northern manufacturing interest in order to enforce more effectually the system of monopoly and extortion against the consuming States. If it should succeed in electing its President and passing its Tariffs of monopoly, I deeply fear, that the simple alternative of submission, or resistance will be presented to the oppressed; but, if it should fail, I do trust, that it will bring those into power, who will earnestly set to work to apply an effectual remedy; and, now that the disease is manifest, every virtuous friend of the country ought seriously to direct his attention to discover what is this effectual remedy.

Calhoun knew that, in theory, the tax rate might be kept acceptably low if the debt were paid off and government spending minimized. Nevertheless, he saw that a frugal government could not appease the desire of the northern manufacturers for tariff protection. The only escape from despotism would be a southern veto of protective tariff legislation. Another word for "veto" would be "nullification."

In suggesting the payment of the publick debt and rigid economy in disbursements, I considered them, not so much as the remedy, as the means, by which a state of things may be brought about favourable to an effectual cure. After much reflection, it seems to me, that the despotism founded on combined geographical interest, admits of but one effectual remedy, a veto on the part of the local interest, or under our system, on the part of the States.

Calhoun suggested a theoretical basis for the division of powers of government that would avoid conflict. If the states gave to the general government only those powers that affected all citizens in exactly the same way, then the state governments would be left to exercise those powers that affected citizens differently. States could then exercise a veto over legislation, such as the tariff, that affected local interests differently. Calhoun clearly saw the basic conflict with the power of the General Government. He was unable to come up with an easy solution to this serious problem.

If the Representatives of the local interest, or the State governments be true to themselves, and if the division of power between the General, and State Governments really give to the former only those, which [a]ffect all in the same way, reserving to the latter those that are truly local in their nature, the veto would be nearly effectual, tho, even then, not entirely so. It is difficult to conceive, how, peculiar local & minor interests can be secured unless by a negative of the kind; but how far such a negative would be found consistent with the general power, is an important consideration, which I waive for the present.

There was an obstacle to the state's veto or nullification of federal government law. That was the Judiciary Act of 1789 That law set up the structure of the Federal Court system. Section 25 of that Act, however, gave the federal courts appellate jurisdiction over conflicts between state court decisions and federal law. That meant that the General Government would be the final arbiter over questions of the validity of state vetoes of federal tax law. That would resolve any stalemate in which Calhoun could see a refuge from federal tyranny. Calhoun thought it might possibly have been adopted without Constitutional authority for it. Was it too late to inquire?

There is one fact, however, of the greatest importance, that this negative would in truth exist were it not for a provision in a single act of Congress, I mean the 25th section of the Judiciary Act of 1789; the existence or non-existence of which provision would make an entire change in the operation of our system. If the appellate power from the State courts to the U[nited] States court provided for by the 25th sec[tio]n did not exist, the practical consequence would be, that each government would have a negative on the other, and thus possess the most effectual remedy, that can be conceived against encroachment. Under this view, this provision becomes one of the deepest importance, much more so, than any other in the statute book; and altho' among the oldest, it ought not to be considered to late to enquire, by what authority Congress adopted it, and how far it can be reconciled with the sovereignty of the States, as to their reserved rights?

Calhoun obviously hoped that Tazewell could lead him to some argument that Section 25 was an unconstitutional infringement on the reserved powers of the States. Calhoun was clearly in fear of severe crisis if some mechanism could not be found to safely defuse the danger.

On both points, I would be much gratified with your views. I know of no one more competent to a thorough investigation of them. If the provision in question be really inconsistent with the Constitution, the application of the remedy against geographical despotism becomes at least simple, to whatever new dangers the country may be thereby exposed; none of which can, I am confident, be more urgent than that, which now threatens us.

Calhoun foresaw that men like Thurlow Weed, William Seward and Horace Greeley would use money from tariff interested men such as Lewis Benedict in order to gain power.

He indeed must be ignorant, who does not see, that when a great local interest combines in an extensive country to absorb all of the benefits, and to throw off all of the burden of supporting the government, that dissolution, or tyranny is approaching, and that the approach will be with an accelerated velocity by profligate politicians seizing on means so powerful to gain, or retain power.

Yours sincerely, J.C. Calhoun.

A note on the back of the letter, "Ansd October 23, 1827," indicates that Tazewell probably wrote a reply. It has not been found.