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The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States, 2nd Edition edited by Hall, Kermit L (23rd June 2005)

N, Nullification

Edited By: Kermit L. Hall, James W. Ely Jr., Joel B. Grossman

From: The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States (2nd Edition)

Edited By: Kermit L. Hall

From: Oxford Constitutions (http://oxcon.ouplaw.com). (c) Oxford University Press, 2015. All Rights Reserved. Subscriber: null; date: 04 June 2020


is the doctrine by which states claimed power to declare a law of the federal government unconstitutional. It was the most important theoretical alternative to the idea that the U.S. Supreme Court is the final arbiter of constitutional controversies. In the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions (1798–1800) Thomas *Jefferson and James *Madison briefly adverted to nullification. New England Federalists often ignored the authority of the national government, while other states, most notably Kentucky in *Green v. Biddle (1823) and Georgia in Worcester v. Georgia (1832), refused to recognize the authority of the Supreme Court (see cherokee cases).

The most important and systematic development of nullification doctrine occurred in South Carolina. In the South Carolina Exposition and Protest (1828), John C. Calhoun, who was then vice president, argued that the Constitution was a compact among the sovereign states whereby they delegated limited and carefully specified powers to the federal government. If a state believed the federal government had over-reached its authority, it could call a special convention to declare the law unconstitutional and nullify its operation. Should the federal government respond by adopting an amendment to the Constitution in order to legitimize its authority, the state could either acquiesce or secede from the Union.

Although Calhoun always stressed the peaceful and legal nature of nullification, President Andrew *Jackson viewed the doctrine as revolutionary and treasonous when South Carolina implemented it during the nullification controversy of 1832–1833. During the next three decades, nullification, with its emphasis on secession as a constitutional right, became increasingly intertwined with states’ rights and the South’s defense of *slavery.

See also state sovereignty and states’ rights.

Richard E. Ellis