Calhoun, a native South Carolinian and the most prominent proponent of the constitutional idea of state nullification, the rejected legal theory that if a state considered a federal legislation was unconstitutional, the state may proclaim the law null and void. This would include not only refusing to enforce the law but also prohibiting its execution in state prisons and other institutions under state control.
The concept of nullification has been used in different ways by various states over time. Some states have nullified certain laws by refusing to enforce them, while others have declared entire statutes or portions thereof invalid without taking any action against their implementation. Still others have used the power defensively, for example by declaring that a federal act cannot be applied in a case where there is a conflict with state law. The last use of nullification occurs when a state intervenes in another country's affairs; in this case, the term "nullification" is used in a derogatory sense, since the other country is said to be "nullifying" an agreement or treaty by which it would be bound.
In Calhoun's view, the powers of the states were derived from a combination of the federal government's powers plus those powers reserved to the states by the Constitution. Since the federal government had the power to enact laws that violated the principles of the constitution, such as by passing an unconstitutional income tax, then states could nullify such laws by refraining from enforcing them.
Calhoun, a fervent defender of slavery and a slave-owner himself, was the Senate's most famous states' rights champion, and his concept of nullification asserted that individual states had the authority to reject federal laws that they thought illegal. In 1832, Calhoun became vice president under John C. Calhoun, who was elected president. In 1837, after ineffectual attempts to negotiate with anti-slavery groups, Calhoun introduced legislation to outlaw the expansion of slavery into new territories. The so-called "Calhoun Doctrine" provided for military action if one state determined that another was attempting to abolish slavery. When South Carolina passed ordinances of secession in late December 1860 and early January 1861, they were accompanied by resolutions declaring their intention to resist any attempt at abolition or colonization within their borders. These events led to the formation of the Confederate States of America in February 1861.
In response to these acts, President James Buchanan signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act into law on May 30, 1856. This bill allowed residents of newly admitted territories to decide for themselves whether they would allow slavery. If they chose not to have slavery, then settlers could not be prevented from bringing slaves into the territory. But if they decided to allow slavery, then it could spread across the land. Many southern leaders believed that this act constituted a declaration of war against slavery, and so began the Southern Civil War.
Calhoun's nullification theory was based on the fact that the United States constitution was based on a compact among sovereign states, and he reasoned that if the constitution had been established by 13 sovereign states, each state had the right to nullify, or reject, a federal law that it deemed unconstitutional. What exactly does "nullification" mean? Nullification is the official rejection by a State of any federal law as being invalid within its boundaries. The nullifying State thereby claims sovereignty over any issue involved with the rejected law.
In 1832, South Carolina became the first state to nullify a federal law when it refused to pay the tariff imposed by the government under President Andrew Jackson. The Tariff of 1816 had been designed to protect American industry from foreign competition and was highly unpopular in South Carolina which was dominated by wealthy planters who relied on imports for their food and manufactured goods. When South Carolina refused to pay the tariffs, the government sued them. The case made its way to the Supreme Court where the decision was in favor of South Carolina. In effect, the court declared the entire tariff void within the borders of South Carolina.
During the Civil War, several other states followed South Carolina's lead. In 1861, shortly after the start of the war, Virginia joined the other southern states in rejecting certain congressional measures. In 1863, during the presidential election year, many northern states announced their intention to not comply with federal laws they considered to be unconstitutional.
To that end, Calhoun advocated for states' rights and nullification, which allowed states to declare unconstitutional federal laws null and void. Along with Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, he was a member of the "Great Triumvirate" or "Immortal Trio" of Congressional leaders. They are credited with bringing about the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which established boundaries between slavery's future territories. Under the terms of the agreement, states north of the line were free, while those south of it were slave. This compromise allowed the union to expand westward without having to confront this issue immediately.
In addition to states' rights and the Missouri Compromise, Calhoun also supported the concept of popular sovereignty. He argued that if a state wanted to outlaw slavery, they should be able to do so. However, if Congress decided to ban slavery in all federal territories, then that would be acceptable to South Carolina because it would give them direct control over their own destiny on this issue.
These are just some of the many opinions of John C. Calhoun. It is important to note that while he was vice president under James Monroe and John Quincy Adams, these were not partisan positions. Rather, they were views that Calhoun believed were in the best interest of South Carolina regardless of what party held power.