Ask a Scholar

Peter Wood

by Peter Wood

“Ask a Scholar” matches readers’ questions to scholars who either have the answers or interesting ways of obscuring their ignorance. We invite readers to submit questions

Questions submitted for consideration should call more for educated judgment than for facts. “In 1492 who sailed the ocean blue?” for example, is a question of limited interest, since biographies of Leif Ericson are widely available, including on Wikipedia. We especially welcome questions that provide professors the occasion to draw erudite distinctions and incorporate mention of matters you had no idea were connected to the topic at hand.

One of our models for this enterprise is the journal Notes and Queries, in its original form. For the last several months we have been gathering “queries.” Queries we have on hand:

What should I make of John Ashbery’s poetry?  He seems to be famous and well regarded but his poems make no sense.

Why does the electoral map of 1896—William Jennings Bryan vs.  William McKinley—look so much like today’s map?  Is it coincidence or is there a deeper cultural reason?

I’ve read several experts who say the current economic crisis is the worst since the Great Depression?  Is it?  What does that mean?

Is Russia part of “the West”?

Is science fiction literature?
Today, who, really, should go to college?

Do manners still matter?

What is the meaning of life?
How is the cell phone changing our culture?
Is the printed word on the brink of extinction?
Has Big Brother arrived?
Could Frankenstein have been written today?
What would Charles Dickens make of contemporary society? Mark Twain?
Which contemporary novelists, poets, and playwrights will still be read in a hundred years? 

Once upon a time, scholars were among the best sources of odd bits of knowledge. If you wanted to know which species of bees are native to Newfoundland, how many vice presidential candidates wore glasses, or whether Gilgamesh had a first name, you might well find an answer from a scholar who had a Xerxes-like command of a multitudinous army of facts. 

Alas, Xerxes’ army came to grief and so did the idea of the professor as keeper of the archive of not-quite-lost knowledge. Today we have Google. And within the vast universe of Google, we have the endless corridors of Wikipedia. True, some of those corridors are blind alleys, but with a little patience, you can usually find what you need on the Internet and avoid having to move from your chair or speak to a person. Whether it is the Internet Movie Data Base or North American Bird Sounds, almost every domain of knowledge has its own easily-accessed reference tools. 

As a source of esoteric facts, the role of scholars has eroded. Fortunately, we still have questions that call for confidently rendered and dressed up opinions. To start our series, we ask,

Lots of experts say that an event as disruptive as our precipitous financial crisis has never before unfolded in the middle of an American presidential election. Is this true? Are there any relevant historical parallels?

Glenn Ricketts, Professor of Political Science, Raritan Valley Community College, answers:

The Nullification Crisis of 1832 provides the most direct parallel to 2008. Like the sub-prime, credit-freezing, Fannie-Mae imploding, Lehman/Wachovia folding, Dow-diving financial crisis of the last month, the Nullification Crisis exploded unexpectedly in the midst of President Andrew Jackson’s re-election bid against his political arch-rival, Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky. 

“Nullification” was a long-standing but generally low-intensity legal controversy:  the belief that states could refuse to enforce federal laws which they found unconstitutional. Supporters of the theory, such as Vice President John C. Calhoun, argued that the national union had been created and given its powers by authorization of the sovereign states, which accordingly retained the right to determine whether those powers had been exercised properly. The issue had surfaced previously, as in 1799, but in 1832 was drawn into the center of the increasingly bitter North/South sectional rivalry. Although the rancorous public breach between Jackson and Calhoun offered some spectacular, short-term political theater, the nullification controversy far transcended the momentary clash of egos and personalities. It established major fault lines in the union, and anticipated the confrontation which would produce the full-scale ruptures of 1860, following the election of Abraham Lincoln. 

The 1832 showdown was precipitated with the passage of a new tariff by Congress in1828. Ironically, the proposal originated as a political bluff devised by Andrew Jackson’s presidential supporters, including John C. Calhoun,, who had crafted the bill as part of an intricate strategy intended to embarrass incumbent President John Quincy Adams and to strengthen Jackson’s election prospects. The proposed tariff, they reckoned, was prohibitively high and would undoubtedly fail; but the maneuver itself would enable Jackson to appear friendly to protection in New England and possibly split Adams from his own supporters. 

The scheme backfired, however, when the tariff—christened the “tariff of abominations—unexpectedly passed in May, 1828, arousing angry protests throughout the South and rumblings of nullification and even secession in South Carolina.   A few months later Calhoun anonymously published a pamphlet, South Carolina Exposition and Protest, in which heoffered an elaborate defense of thenullification doctrine.   When Jackson defeated Adams in the 1828 election, his southern supporters expected that, as a fellow slaveholder, he would be sympathetic to their desire for lower tariffs. Their hopes were sharply rebuffed in 1830, however, when Jackson emerged as a stalwart nationalist who regarded nullification as fundamentally incompatible with the Constitution, and would-be nullifiers as traitors. Nevertheless, by the summer of 1831, Calhoun had publicly reiterated the principles of the Exposition and aligned himself with the nullificationists in his home state, thus placing himself in open opposition to Jackson. 

Matters came to a head during the summer of 1832, when Congress, with Jackson’s endorsement, enacted a new tariff which, while lowering some rates, did not come close to satisfying Calhoun and his South Carolinian allies. Nullificationists quickly seized political momentum within the state and, following some tense, closely watched legislative elections in October, a special convention charged with considering the nullification issue was authorized by the assembly.   Meeting the following month, the convention overwhelmingly voted to nullify the tariffs of 1828 and 1832 and thus set the stage for a head-on confrontation with the President. The Ordinance of Nullification declared that no federal tariffs would be collected by South Carolina after February 1, 1833; moreover, any attempts by the national government to do so would lead to the state’s secession from the union. In addition, the South Carolina legislature appropriated funds to raise additional militia, in anticipation of armed resistance to federal enforcement. 

Jackson also prepared for a military confrontation, sending additional troops and naval forces to the vicinity of Charleston. In December, in a Proclamation to the People of South Carolina, Jackson firmly restated his belief that nullification was “incompatible with the existence of the union, contradicted expressly by the letter of the Constitution, unauthorized by its spirit, inconsistent with every principle on which it was founded, and destructive of the great object for which it was founded.” Later the same month, John C. Calhoun resigned the vice-presidency, having been elected to the Senate by the South Carolina Legislature. Through all of this, Jackson was also re-elected as President, his political fortunes probably strengthened by his forceful leadership during the concurrent crisis.

The tense stand-off continued for several months, although public support for the “nullies” within South Carolina began to waver in the face of Jackson’s unflinching stance. Moreover, southern states which had hitherto been strongly sympathetic to their neighbor now took flight and denounced its policies as rash and foolhardy. The crisis was eventually defused with the enactment, in March, 1833, of a compromise bill which provided for the gradual lowering of tariffs over the course of the next decade. In a further irony, the bill’s passage in the Senate was expedited in part through the efforts of Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun, Jackson’s chief political antagonists. For the time being at least, nullification and secession were swept back under the carpet, and the union, although shaken, endured. All of these demons, unfortunately, would eventually return.

There have certainly been other presidential contests beset by crisis: In 1980, President Jimmy Carter’s re-election campaign was burdened by the Iran hostage impasse. The 1968 contest, overshadowed by the Viet Nam war, witnessed Lyndon Johnson’s decision not to seek re-election, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Senator Robert Kennedy, and daily antiwar riots in the streets of Chicago during the Democratic national convention there. In 1940, Franklin Roosevelt, while actually alarmed by the rapid military advances of Germany and Japan, was obliged to tread gingerly around the American public’s overwhelmingly isolationist mindset.   And in 1860, of course, the nation confronted the real possibility that the union would finally fracture.  

I think the 1832 nullification crisis, however, is the most salient parallel to today’s financial collapse.  The surprise and speed with which events materialized in the midst of a presidential campaign focused on other issues are the key.  Each instance, in addition, carried an overwhelming urgency which compelled an immediate response. For Andrew Jackson, there was the sudden and distinct likelihood of secession and armed rebellion in South Carolina, and possibly other southern states as well; a resolution of the tariff issue, therefore, would have to be sought at once and could not be deferred. The Wall Street crisis of 2008 brought the entire campaign season to a virtual halt, as presidential and congressional candidates were forced to meet hastily in Washington, where they enacted emergency “bailout” legislation early in October. Uncertainty and apprehension lingered in public opinion in 1833.  We know the long-term effects of the nullification crisis: the nation was put on the path to Civil War. We of course don’t know where this year’s financial turmoil will lead, but I don’t expect a rending of the national fabric, and I hope not a replay of the Great Depression either. 

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