MADISON, James. Autograph letter signed ("James Madison") to James Barbour (1775-1842), U.S. Minister to Great Britain, Montpellier, [Virginia], 18 December 1828. 1 2/3 pages, 4to, integral address leaf, minor repairs.
MADISON'S OPTIMISM DURING THE NULLIFICATION CRISIS: "OUR FREE SYSTEM OF GOVERNMENT, HOWEVER LIABLE TO LOCAL & ACUTE MALADIES, HAS A CHRONIC HEALTH & VIGOR"
A thoughtful letter, written during the critical election year of 1828, in which Madison expresses confidence that the nation will weather the crises of nullification and growing threats of secession. President John Quincy Adams's efforts to foster economic growth by means of a protective tariff touched off widespread and vocal opposition in the South. Intended to shield the developing manufacturing industries from foreign competition, the tariff would likely cause an increase in the price of imported goods and might elicit retaliatory tariffs against southern cotton. Thomas Cooper, President of South Carolina College, proclaimed that "We shall ere long be compelled to calculate the value of our union...and enquire of what use to us is this most unequal alliance" (Watson, Liberty & Power, p. 116). Despite these rumblings, Congress passed the protective tariff of 1828 (termed by the South the "Tariff of Abominations"). John C. Calhoun became the spokesman of the anti-tariff movement and promulgated the concept of nullification: the thesis that a state legislature could overturn or nullify a federal statute.
In the midst of the crisis, Madison expresses his concern to Barbour: "I am sorry to say that the ferment produced in S.Carolina by the tariff subsides more slowly (if at all) than was to be expected. The Legislature is now in session, and the difference in opinions seems to be confined to the modes of effectuating its repeal or its nullification; all concurring in the unconstitutionality and intolerable oppression of the measure." He is hopeful that if South Carolina fails to win support from other southern states the movement will collapse: "As Georgia however does not back her neighbour in the extent that was probably expected, & N.C. will certainly not do so, whilst Virginia frowns on every symptom of violence and disunion, it may be confidently presumed that a favorable change is not very distant." Madison affirms that the resolution of the crisis will demonstrate to "illwishers abroad" that "our free System of Government, however liable to local & acute maladies, has a chronic health and vigor that is sure to expel the cause of them...."
The dispute over the tariff in 1828 was partly diffused by the Andrew Jackson's victory in 1828. Nullification supporters expected that Jackson, as a southern plantation owner, would prove sympathetic to the states' rights faction and support elimination of the hated tariff. Utilizing the ship of state analogy, Madison tells Barbour that no one can yet predict the outcome, since "the issue of the Presidential contest, which fame with her thousand trumpets has already proclaimed, of the cabinet in embrio, and of the course that will be steered by the new Palinurus, with respect to the stormy questions and baffling expectations, in the midst of which he will take the helm. I know as little as the least knowing and must refer you for the various speculations afloat to the Metropolitan fountain from wch they flow." Four years later the Nullification Crisis came to a head and Jackson, emphatically rejecting South Carolina's policy of nullification, threatened to suppress any movement towards secession with military force.
Finally, Madison comments on relations with Great Britain: "We think here it is high time for a relinquishment of the theoretic fallacy, and practical folly of their colonial doctrine, and for a discovery of the inconsistency of refusing our claim to the use of the St. Laurence with theirs to that of the Mississippi."
Provenance: The Robert Adam Ramsdell Jr. Collection of Presidential Autographs (sale, Sotheby's, 26 April 1983, lot 27).