The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

XV. Publicists and Orators, 1800–1850

§ 15. Nullification

Between 1828 and 1833 he developed his theories in defence of nullification by a single state. The basis of the right is of course the sovereignty of the state, and Calhoun insisted on indivisibility of sovereignty. “I maintain,” he said, “that sovereignty is in its nature indivisible. It is the supreme power in a state, and we might just as well speak of half a square, or half of a triangle, as half a sovereignty.” Probably it is not quite evident that one cannot justly speak of half a square; but without cavilling at his illustration we may see that in these words he swept aside statements which had been common before this time, to the effect that states, coming into the Union, surrendered a portion of their sovereignty and retained the remainder. Beneath his whole reasoning, therefore, lay the principles of what we may call organic philosophy, the recognition of the vital character of the body politic, though, of course, in this case, the body politic was the commonwealth, not the nation. He also believed that mere agreement could not establish law or political unity. This notion, at variance with the older one that men by consent could form themselves, artificially as it were, into a new entity, was beginning to take its hold on the philosophic world, and it was Calhoun’s appreciation of this notion and his use of it in concrete political controversy which constitutes one of his signal contributions to the history of political theory.

He did not, in these early days, dwell on the right of secession. In fact he did not wish, especially then, to emphasize that right; he relied, rather, on the right of nullification, that is, on the power of any state to declare, not through its legislature but through a convention representing the sovereignty of the state, that a federal law is void and must not be enforced within the state. Nullification, in fact, was put forth as a device whereby the state might be preserved, with its authority untouched, without having to resort to secession from the Union. It was, therefore, as he conceived it, conservative in a twofold sense: it conserved the right of the individual state, and it saved the Union; for, without nullification, secession was the only remedy for wrong. To preserve the appearance of constitutional method, he insisted that when a law was nullified the judgment of all the states should be sought, and they, by a three-fourths vote, might declare that the disputed power belonged to the national government. It is quite unnecessary to assert that Calhoun was insincere in announcing this method of passing on controverted points; the protection of the minority and the real desirability of maintaining the Union were cogent in his mind; the Union was too much of a reality for him to think easily of its being altogether at the beck and nod of a single state. It is plain, however, that one more than one-fourth of the states could, by his plan, pronounce a measure void; and, moreover, if three-fourths declared it constitutional, such declaration could not deter a state, all-powerful in its sovereignty, from seceding. A resort to nullification was, in Calhoun’s mind, a means of determining whether the states supported the government, which was only their agent, and, if they did support it, then and only then might secession be resorted to. Secession, in other words, though theoretically within the competence of any state, would not as a rule be justified simply because of the action of the central government, for the government was the agent of the states; until the principals acted, the individual state should content itself with nullification.