Getting it Backwards: “The Nullifiers Lost in 1865”

The following post is excerpted from the script for Nullify: Season 1. Watch all the videos from this series at this link – and Become a member here to support the TAC.

Whenever states take action to resist federal laws, some condescending person is bound to say “This was settled in 1865. The nullifiers lost.” But they’ve got it backwards.

While some people associate nullification with the short-lived effort of South Carolina in the 1830’s, the biggest nullification effort of the time was actually by Northern States in response to the fugitive slave acts – a series of federal laws designed to keep the institution of slavery in tact.

Starting in the mid-1830s and ramping up through the 1850s, Northern states passed “Personal Liberty Laws” to effectively nullify the hated pro-slavery laws from Washington D.C.

These states were so effective that South Carolina named this Northern nullification as the #1 reason for leaving the Union in their official Declaration of Causes for secession. The document read, in part:

“The States of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa, have enacted laws which either nullify the Acts of Congress or render useless any attempt to execute them.”

In addition, they noted “For twenty-five years this agitation has been steadily increasing.”

Official secession declarations in Mississippi and Texas also protested this nullification of federal slavery laws by Northern states.

Opponents of nullification often try to associate it with the slaveholding states of the 19th century South by claiming the issue was settled by the civil war. The implication is that the South wanted to nullify, and since they lost the war, nullification is either racist or illegal.

Putting aside the fact that slavery was supposedly legal and the Southern states had nothing to nullify, the historical record proves that it was the anti-slavery abolitionists in the North who were actually using nullification.

While winning a war should never be a measure of what’s right and wrong, I guess you could make the case that the question was indeed “settled in 1865.”  The nullifiers won.

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