Nullification, in United States history, the doctrine that a state has the right to declare a federal law null and void and to suspend its operation within the state's jurisdiction. The doctrine, proposed by extreme advocates of states' rights, was based on five constitutional theories:
- The U.S. Constitution is a compact made by sovereign states.
- The states retain their sovereignty.
- The federal government is the agent of the states.
- The federal government has only those powers delegated to it by the states.
- Since nullification is not mentioned in the Constitution, it is one of the powers retained by the states.
The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions (1798, 1799) suggested the idea of nullification at the time when Jefferson's party was fighting against the Alien and Sedition Acts. Later, the right of nullification was asserted by several states on various issues. Georgia (with the support of President Jackson) successfully defied the U.S. Supreme Court in the treatment of the Cherokee Indians and their lands in 1831 and 1832.
South Carolina precipitated a national crisis in 1832 when it threatened to nullify the tariff laws of 1828 and 1832. A state convention was called, and the tariffs were declared null and void. Steps were taken to prevent federal officers from collecting tariff duties in South Carolina. South Carolina warned that it would secede from the Union if the federal government attempted coercion.
President Jackson denied the right of nullification, warned South Carolina he would enforce the tariff laws, and asked Congress to pass a force bill (a bill authorizing extraordinary measures to enforce laws) to strengthen his powers. He also encouraged a compromise on the tariff. In 1833 Congress passed the force bill and adopted a new tariff law reducing rates over a 10-year period. Both sides could claim victory. South Carolina repealed its ordinance of nullification, but “nullified” the force act.
After the passage of the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 several northern states adopted personal liberty laws to protect blacks within their borders. These state laws threatened to nullify the federal law.
The Civil War discredited the theory of state sovereignty. The doctrine of nullification could no longer be held. Nevertheless after the 1954 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court outlawing racial segregation in public schools some southern states advocated a similar doctrine called “constitutional interposition.” These states adopted a policy of “massive resistance” to federal authority. In 1958 the U.S. Supreme Court declared that the integration of public schools “can neither be nullified by state legislators or state executive or judicial officers, nor nullified indirectly by them through evasive schemes for segregation.” In 1959 the Virginia Supreme Court held that certain acts of that state's legislature designed to promote “massive resistance” to desegregation were invalid under the state constitution.