The Pre-Civil War Era (1815–1850)
Adams and Jackson: 1824–1833
The Election of 1824
The Era of Good Feelings was definitely over by the time the 1824 election rolled around. Controversy over the Missouri Compromise and Monroe Doctrine, combined with the depression that followed the Panic of 1819, undermined national unity. Five candidates—all of them Democratic-Republican—ran for the presidency that year.
Initially, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams was the strongest candidate. Also popular was Speaker of the House Henry Clay. Then, in the summer of 1824, General Andrew Jackson threw himself into the race. Although he had little political experience, he became the dominant candidate because he was the most popular man in the country. In the end, Jackson received more popular votes than the others, but no candidate won enough electoral votes to become president.
The “Corrupt Bargain”
As was the case in 1800, the House of Representatives had to elect the next president. Because of Clay’s last-minute support, the House chose Adams. But when Adams then named Clay his secretary of state, Americans were outraged. Most of the American presidents up to this point had served previously as secretaries of state, and the position was commonly regarded to be the stepping-stone to the presidency. Jacksonites thus clamored that Adams had won only because of a “corrupt bargain” with Clay. His reputation ruined, Adams remained politically impotent throughout his four years.
The election of 1824 was different from previous elections in that support for candidates was highly sectional. In the late 1700s, Federalists and Democratic-Republicans alike drew support from the North as well as the South. Then, during the Era of Good Feelings, most Americans identified with the Democratic-Republicans. In 1824, however, this unity had disappeared: Adams carried New England solidly, while Jackson relied on the South and West. The results of the 1828 election were similarly divided by region.
Regionalism vs. Federalism
Akin to the growing sectionalism in the United States was the emerging power struggle between regionalism and federalism. President Jackson was the embodiment of federal power. Though a Democrat, he firmly believed that the federal government should have the final say over the states. He also demonstrated on numerous occasions that he felt the presidency to be the strongest of the three branches of government.
On the other hand, sectional politicians were emerging as well. Henry Clay from Kentucky became the voice of the West, lobbying to improve western infrastructure to facilitate transportation and help the growing agricultural economy. Clay’s ally Daniel Webster, from Massachusetts, was the primary advocate for the North, campaigning for infrastructure as well as higher protective tariffs to help Northern manufacturers. The primary voice of the South was the states’ righter John C. Calhoun.
The Election of 1828 and “Old Hickory”
Jackson ran again in 1828 for the Democratic-Republicans (by this time known simply as the Democrats). Adams ran against Jackson as a National Republican but lost after carrying only New England. Jackson, who had appeal with the common men of America, took all of the West and South.
In reality, Jackson—or “Old Hickory,” as many called him—was a wealthy slave owner, lawyer, and general who had almost nothing in common with the average westerner. Still, his reputation as a fighting frontiersman and his military prowess proved more popular than the stuffy Adams from New England.
The Spoils System
Upon taking office, Jackson immediately surrounded himself with like-minded cronies, distributing the spoils of victory to greedy office-seekers who had supported him throughout his legal, military, and political careers. Jackson defended this spoils system with arguments that Washington needed a change of pace, but opponents slammed him for filling the administration with democratic rabble and abusing his powers of office. Indeed, many of these spoils-seekers did turn out to be corrupt and untrustworthy.
The Tariff of Abominations
Jackson’s first political battle came soon after his election and involved the always-sticky issue of tariffs. Jackson’s supporters, bitter after his 1824 loss to Adams, had pushed for the passage of an incredibly steep tariff. The Jacksonites believed that southern congressmen would kill the tariff before it became law, which would anger pro-tariff New Englanders, who would blame Adams and vote him out of office.
Unfortunately for the Democrats, the tariff was actually passed in 1828, after Jackson had already defeated Adams. Southerners, who imported many foreign goods and had no manufacturing of their own, cried out against the Tariff of 1828 , which they labeled the “Tariff of Abominations,” claiming that it made Yankees rich at their expense. Jackson’s vice president, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, led the protests against the tariff by writing an anonymous essay called “South Carolina Exposition and Protest” in 1829. Inspired by the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798–1799, Calhoun’s pamphlet argued that the individual states in the South should declare the tariff null and void.
The Nullification Crisis
For the next four years, South Carolinians tried to muster enough votes within the state legislature to act on Calhoun’s proposal. Even though Jackson himself disliked the tariff, he stood firmly against nullification and disobedience of the federal government. Congress did pass another lower tariff, the Tariff of 1832 , as a gesture of goodwill to the South, but southerners still objected.
Eventually, the South Carolinians succeeded, and legislators met at a special convention in 1832 to nullify the Tariff of Abominations within the state. Jackson, enraged at the action, dispatched the navy to the South Carolina coast and prepared an army task force of Unionist troops.
The Compromise Tariff of 1833
Fortunately, no shots were ever fired, for the ever-diplomatic Henry Clay proposed a compromise. He suggested that Congress draft a new tariff that would lower the duties over time to the percentage stipulated by the Tariff of 1816. Northern manufacturers protested the loss of their protection, but South Carolinians jumped at the opportunity to resolve the situation without bloodshed. As a result, Congress passed the Compromise Tariff of 1833 .
To prevent any future nullification showdowns, Congress simultaneously passed the Force Bill, which authorized the president to use military force to collect tariff duties. Clay thus ended a crisis that could have thrown the North and South into a civil war thirty years earlier than it actually occurred.
The Nullification Crisis marked a turning point in North-South relations. More than anything else, southerners saw the Tariff of Abominations as a northern attack on their way of life. Since the political duel over Missouri, southerners had grown increasingly suspicious of what they perceived to be northern designs to stifle them. Indeed, northerners in general were growing increasingly critical of the South’s dependence on slavery. The Nullification Crisis proved to be a boiling point: whereas the regions, though different, had coexisted peacefully in the past, they grew increasingly more hostile toward each other after 1832. This trend would continue until the outbreak of the Civil War.