States’ rights are a prominent theme in the discussion of the causes of the American Civil War.   While historians may debate whether this was the ultimate cause, or a vehicle used to justify and support slavery, the Early State Records collection suggests that states’ rights was an early rallying cry for many Southern states, with South Carolina leading the way.

In 1828, a federal protectionist tariff was enacted, which levied high tariffs on foreign goods.  The Southern states were particularly harmed by this act, penalizing the largely agrarian economy and causing high prices in manufactured foreign goods, while lowering the prices on their crops.   In response, Congress passed a compromise bill in 1832, which somewhat reduced the level of tariffs.  Most southern states found this concession to their concerns to be acceptable. 

South Carolina, however, was not mollified and subsequently organized the Nullification Convention in November of that same year.  Records found in LLMC# 21125-21131 provide a rich history of the two sessions of this convention.   The first session culminated in an ordinance which nullified the Tariff Acts of 1828 and 1832 within the boundaries of South Carolina, and threatened secession if the federal government sought enforcement (See LLMC #21126).  Governor Robert J. Turnbull subsequently so advised his citizens (LLMC#21127), while documents supporting the state’s position were forwarded to all governors and President Andrew Jackson (LLMC#21128).

Of course the federal government responded; Congress passed the aptly named Force Bill, which allowed the federal government to use military force against South Carolina.  However an olive branch, in the form of the Compromise Tariff of 1833, was also passed by Congress.   Despite the latter being acceptable to South Carolina, the state symbolically reconvened a second session and nullified the Force Bill (LLMC #21126).

However, as later documents demonstrated, the issue of states’ rights and secession was a precursor to the future rallying cry of Southern states.  In 1852, there was yet another state convention (LLMC #21133) which issued a stern warning that the federal government's continued violation of the Constitution by its encroachment of the rights of the state, particularly with respect to slavery, justified "dissolving at once all political connection with her Co-States."  While South Carolina stopped short of this step (for “expediency” reasons), the state had no such reluctance in its December 1860 “Declaration of the Immediate Causes which induce and justify the secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union” (LLMC #21139).  Indeed, the opening paragraph specifically referred to the April 26, 1852 declaration of federal encroachment of states’ right in justifying its cessation.  South Carolina was the first of the Southern states to leave the Union, ultimately leading to the Confederacy and the Civil War.

In the midst of turmoil regarding the Confederate monuments and their place in the present society, knowledge of history through these primary sources can allow for needed historical perspectives.  While Early State Records cannot resolve this debate, they are a valuable tool for understanding those times and beliefs. 

Early State Records is one of LLMC’s most substantial initiatives, thanks to the patronage of several libraries which are listed *here*.  In Phase One, LLMC is digitizing 1023 reels from the Library of Congress’ microfilm collection, containing the records, treatises, newspaper accounts and other legal or related documents from pre-colonial through early statehood of the 15 Atlantic Coast states as well as Native American tribes.  At the time of this article, LLMC is completing the 96 South Carolina reels.  Applying advanced digitization post-processing and value-added metadata  to these primary and secondary sources which were held in numerous state, federal and foreign libraries, historical societies, archives and legislatures, LLMC’s LLMC Digital online service will make many rare and little seen documents available to researchers and society as a whole. 

Written by Joyce Savio Herleth, Saint Louis University School of Law