The nullification arguments of the 1830s dominated the national debate, and they extended from legislatures and speaking platforms to popular books, including a bestseller by Asa Greene.
The quixotic Thomas Cooper penned his Memoirs of a Nullifier in 1832 supporting the Southern argument. It caricatured New Englanders as greedy, sneaky crooks. Asa Greene responded on behalf of New England in 1833.
The nullification debate initially focused on the issue of tariffs on foreign goods to protect American manufacturing after the War of 1812. Tariffs would also repay war debts. By 1830, people largely viewed the tariffs as benefitting the industrial north while doing nothing to help the southern economy. The theory of nullification held that federal law did not apply to a state if it declared the law unconstitutional.
Nullification’s appeal to the South went beyond just the issue of tariffs. Congress could also outlaw slavery.
Asa Greene, born in Ashburnham, Mass., in 1788, trained as a physician at Williams College and the Berkshire Medical School. He would later become an author and editor. His stinging and witty writing style was a sharp weapon for the northern response to nullification advocates.
He penned A Yankee Among the Nullifiers under the name Elnathan Elmwood, Esq. In the story, Elnathan travels to South Carolina and opens a law practice in “the land of cotton and rice, of hot heads and generous hearts, of republican theory and aristocratic practice.”
There he runs for Congress and encounters the southern point of view on nullification. His opponent, Maj. Harebrain Harrington, expressed it in a speech.
“What I have more than once declared to you, I still declare — that the Tariff — the accursed Tariff is unconstitutional— oppressive — tyrannical,” ‘Harrington’ said. “It is a Yankee measure.”
The harebrained major emphasized his opposition to tariffs.
If I thought there was in this heart one drop of blood in favor of the encouragement of home industry, I would let it out — yes, gentlemen, I would let it out — but I would go to the world’s end before I would make use of an American knife to let it out. No Patriot, no friend to his country, no advocate for state rights will be so base as to use a protected article. For my part I would not hang a dog with an American rope.
He asked what right the Yankees had to the protection of their looms, spinning jennies, tin and other cussed notions?
Is one part of the country to be built up to the expense of another? Are the money-catching, penny -saving, tin -peddling, notion-vending, never-idle Jonathans of the East to be forever making money, hand over fist, and getting rich as Croesus, while we, the high-minded gentlemen of the South, who are above touching our fingers to anything in the way of labor or business, are daily becoming poorer and poorer, and hastening with the speed of lightning to the goal of ruin? And what is all this owing to? Clearly to the protection of manufactures.
Greene spins out a story designed to further tweak southern sensibilities. In it, a group of slaves listen in to the political speeches supporting nullification and decide that it applies to their situation as well. Declaring slavery unconstitutional, they decide to nullify it and lead a bloody uprising against the white population of the south, leading to the recognition that the South must develop a free labor system of all races.
Asa Greene ends his tail on a conciliatory note, however. He painted a picture where greater mixing of Americans from different regions leads to harmony.
“For my part, I have long since toted all my prejudices to the moon, where I intend to let them rest, as well with the “things that are lost on earth,” as with the wooden nut megs, the pork and molasses, and all such things as never had a being, except in the store house of sectional fancy, or among the tibbets of local scandal. I love New England with all its Yankee notions, for it is the land of my birth, my childhood, my education; I love the hospitable South, in spite of its Nullification, for it is the birthplace of my wife, the home of my adoption.”
This story last updated in 2022.