Force Act (1833)


Act passed by Congress in 1833 authorizing President Andrew Jackson to use military force to override South Carolina’s Ordinance of Nullification.

On November 24,1832, South Carolina passed the Ordinance of Nullification to stop the enforcement of the Tariff of 1828 within its borders. This tariff, which placed a 41 percent tax on imports in the middle of a national economic depression, severely hurt the South. John Calhoun of South Carolina claimed that it amounted to the federal government taking one-third of the Souths cotton crop in federal taxes, only for the benefit of Northern factory owners. This argument was based on the fact that the South depended on the sale of cotton to English textile mills since the Northern factories could not process all the cotton. In return, the South imported British manufactured goods but had to pay high tariff rates. When Congress only slightly modified the import duties in the Tariff of 1832, South Carolina took action and nullified the tariff.

President Jackson responded swiftly and decisively. First, on December 10, 1832, he issued a “Proclamation to the People of South Carolina” in which he denounced nullification as a threat to the Union and emphasized that the Constitution formed a government of the people, not a league of states. This Union remained perpetual, Jackson asserted; no state had the right to secede, and “disunion by armed force was treason.” He ordered General Winfield Scott to go to Charleston and take command of the federal troops in the state and dispatched a navy warship and seven revenue cutters (government customs ships) to take up a position in the harbor. He then requested Congress for further authority to proceed with the collection of the tariff. Congress responded with the Force Bill—called the “Bloody Bill” in South Carolina— which the House Judiciary Committee sent to the Senate on January 21,1833. The bill authorized the president to use the army and the navy to force South Carolina to pay the tariff if court action to achieve compliance failed.

But Jackson eagerly sought a compromise, because he and others in the administration believed that the entire South would stand against the Force Bill unless Congress enacted a tariff acceptable to South Carolina. Accordingly, when the Ways and Means Committee of the House reported out a compromise tariff on January 8 that reduced the tariff by 50 percent in one year, it received the support of a number of Jacksonian Democrats. But in the Senate, Henry Clay offered his own version of a compromise tariff, less dramatic that the House version. Introduced on February 12, 1833, it would have gradual reductions of the 1832 tariff at two-year intervals up to 1842 until all duties reached 20 percent. Despite some opposition in the House, where Democrats claimed that the Senate could not initiate a revenue bill because that remained the House’s constitutional prerogative, the bill passed the House on February 26, 1833, by a vote of 119 to 85, and on March 1 the Senate approved the measure by a vote of 29 to 16. The next day Jackson signed both the compromise tariff and the Force Bill. South Carolina immediately accepted the tariff and repealed its Ordinance of Nullification. Then the South Carolina legislature promptly nullified the Force Bill, and the Force Act was never used by Jackson against South Carolina.

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