The Nullification Crisis


The relationship between the North and the South was tenuous when Andrew Jackson came to office in 1828. Ever since the Constitutional Convention of 1787, northerners and southerners had fought over slavery and tariffs. Each region wanted to make sure their economies were protected in the new Union. Several times states threatened to leave the Constitutional Convention and abandon the writing of the Constitution. By the end of the Convention, both sides had made significant compromises to the Constitution such as the three-fifths clause, the fugitive slave clause, and Article 1, Section 8, which allowed Congress to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises. These compromises were shaky. Neither side was truly pleased with the results.

Forty-one years later, in 1828, the issue of tariffs surfaced again. Congress passed a high protective tariff on imported, primarily manufactured, goods. The South, being predominantly agricultural and reliant on the North and foreign countries for manufactured goods, saw this tariff as an affront to their economy. Vice President John C. Calhoun called it a "tariff of abominations" meant to favor the North. South Carolina declared that Congress was overstepping its power by offering such support of the North’s manufacturing industries. The confrontation quickly spun into a debate over the power of the federal government to decide the rights of states.

In 1832, after the passage of another tariff, South Carolina declared the tariffs null and void, and threatened to leave the Union in the Ordinance of Nullification. Jackson responded swiftly, calling the action treasonous. He asked Congress for the power to use military force to ensure that states adhered to federal law. While Congress debated the resulting Force Bill—which would grant the President his wish—Kentucky’s Henry Clay introduced a compromise tariff. Both bills passed in 1832. In the end, the North and South compromised, but not without revealing how fragile the relationship was. The Nullification Crisis foreshadowed the eventual secession of the South in 1860–1861.


In this lesson, students will examine the wording of the Tariff of 1828 to discover how the tariff affected the economies of the North and the South. They will look at John C. Calhoun’s Exposition and Protest, in which he outlined why the tariff was unconstitutional and harmful to the southern economy. Students will also read Andrew Jackson’s pledge to preserve the Union in his Nullification Proclamation. Lastly, students will read excerpts from Daniel Webster’s 1830 speech showing how the debate had moved beyond tariffs to the issue of state sovereignty. Students will engage in a discussion activity allowing them to hear each side of the issue and examine the crisis critically. A PowerPoint presentation containing a brief history and introduction to the key individuals and terms from this period accompanies the lesson. 


  • Students will be able to identify the distinct economies of the North and the South.
  • Students will be able to explain the relationship between the economies and the positions on tariffs.
  • Students will be able to analyze the issue of sovereignty between nationalists and states’ rights advocates.
  • Students will be able to articulate the key events of the Nullification Crisis and evaluate the significance of this event in US history.
  • Students will be able to identify key concepts from American civics and the Constitution such as sovereignty, the "necessary and proper clause," the three-fifths clause, powers under Article I, Section 8, and others within the readings. 


Additional Resources

Day One (45–60 minutes)

  1. Barometer Activity: Ask students to consider the following questions: If a state disagrees with a law made by the national government, do you think the state has a right to refuse it? What if the state felt the law was unjust or oppressive? Have students line up on an imaginary line that spans the room with one end representing strongly agree and the other strongly disagree. Allow students to share their reasoning for why they have chosen to stand in a particular spot. (10 minutes)
  2. Provide students with a brief overview of tariffs and the different economies of the North and the South. (5 minutes)
  3. Hand out copies of the Tariff of 1828 and read it as a class. This is a difficult reading due to the legal language. Stop frequently to review chunks of the text with the questions below. (10–15 minutes)
  • Take a look at the wording of the actual tariff. What type of products does this tariff affect?
  • What part of the country makes these goods and would benefit from this tariff?
  • What part of the country will find this tariff harmful to its economy and why?
  • Predict the responses to the tariff.
  1. Review the responses to the Tariff of 1828 and the Nullification Crisis. (10–15 minutes)
  2. Ask students to answer the following journal question as a way to reflect on the lesson and evaluate this crisis in US history. (5 minutes)
  • Do you think the issue over tariffs, the differences in economies, and states’ rights versus the federal government have been resolved or do you think they will flare up again?
  1. Divide the class into three groups and assign each group one of the following readings for homework: South Carolina Exposition and Protest, the Nullification Proclamation, or Daniel Webster’s response to Robert Y. Hayne. Hand out the Readings Worksheet to help students evaluate the document assigned. Explain that they will discuss the readings and complete a related activity in the next day’s class. (5 minutes)

Day Two (45–60 minutes)

  1. Fishbowl Activity: Before students arrive, create a circle of chairs in the middle of the room to seat one of the three groups. The rest of the chairs should be outside the circle. Pick one group to be in the "fishbowl" seated in the circle. Students outside the circle listen as all members of the fishbowl discuss the reading—prompted by questions from you or on their own. The rest of the class takes notes. Rotate through all three groups. (20–25 minutes)
  2. Allow students to ask questions of the other groups. (3–5 minutes)
  3. Lead a class discussion of the three readings using the questions below. (10–20 minutes)
  • Which reading is the most persuasive?
  • Were the tariffs fair?
  • Was the nullification of tariffs an appropriate response by those who disagreed with tariffs?
  • What can people do if they disagree with a law?
  • Was the Force Bill an appropriate response from President Jackson?
  • What do you think would have happened if South Carolina had not repealed the nullification ordinance?
  1. Extension Activity (especially useful in a class that has covered US government/American civics): Provide students with a list of key terms from the Constitution/principles found in the readings. Place students into three groups and ask them to find the definitions and descriptions of the key terms within the texts. This is not an easy task. You can make this a competition between groups to see which one finds all of the key terms/principles and defines them for the class. (10–15 minutes)


  1. Assess the fishbowl activity by requiring all students in each group to participate by asking questions, offering evidence from the readings, etc.
  2. Ask students to pretend they are living in 1832. Have each student write a persuasive letter to his or her congressman, senator, or President Jackson, presenting an argument about the Nullification Crisis.
  3. Assign students to write an essay comparing the tariff and slave controversy at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 with the Crisis of 1832.