Getting it Wrong: James Madison’s 1830 Letter on Nullification

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.

Some people say an 1830 letter from James Madison proves he opposed nullification in all situations. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Writing to Edward Everett , the “Father of the Constitution” used phrases like “overturn the first principle of free government” and “speedily put an end to the Union itself.”

Most modern commentators and legal experts claim Madison was talking about nullification with a broad stroke. Because of this, they also claim nullification is always wrong, and should never be used, in any form.

FACT: They’re either ignorant. Or lying.

Everett asked Madison about a nullification doctrine proposed by John C. Calhoun for the State of South Carolina.  In order to understand Madison’s response, though, we must first understand Calhoun’s proposal, which covered three main points.

  1. A State could “declare an act of Congress null and void” That declaration would be “conclusive” and the feds would have no legal right to enforce its view.
  2. After the state exercised this right, the federal government would have a duty to immediately abandon enforcement of the act, at least in that single state.
  3. If the federal government disagreed, it would have to apply to the other states for approval. And only if 3/4 of the states supported the federal act, would the nullifying state lose.

History and text both reveal the truth about this doctrine. It was never proposed or discussed by the Founders at the Constitutional Convention. It was never debated in any of the state ratifying conventions. It was simply made up by John C. Calhoun.

James Madison rightly rejected it. But his rejection was of this specific doctrine. Writing to Everett, he called it “the expedient lately advanced.” And later in his Notes on Nullification, he again rejected this specific “doctrine of South Carolina.”

Claiming Madison’s rejection of John Calhoun’s bastardized, made-up, South Carolina version of nullification meant he rejected nullification in every situation is a lie.

That’s like calling a “no dessert before dinner” rule for your kids, the same as telling them they can’t eat at all.

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