What Is the "doctrine of Nullification"?

In American history, the doctrine of nullification supports states' rights to nullify federal laws that states deem to be unconstitutional, according to Pearson Education. This theory was promulgated by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in the late 1790s. The nullification crisis of the 1820s revolved around South Carolina's objection to federal tariffs on English textiles, because the state felt the tariffs benefited industrial states in the North.

Jefferson and Madison authored resolutions in 1798 and 1799 supporting Virginia and Kentucky when the states sought to oppose federal powers. The Bill of Rights Institute reveals Virginia, via Jefferson, objected to the Alien and Sedition Acts; Virginia felt that the Acts limited the right to freely examine "public characters and measures." According to the Bill of Rights Institute, Madison authored Kentucky's objection to the federal government overstepping its bounds, saying the states possess an "unquestionable right" to judge Congress by its infractions. He argued that nullification is a "rightful remedy."

The doctrine of nullification came up in legal discourse again when South Carolina sought to nullify high textile tariffs in 1828. The Independence Hall Association explains that Vice President John C. Calhoun from South Carolina labeled the law the "tariff of abomination" since it favored industrial mills in the North. The tariff reduced demand for southern cotton, due to high import tariffs on English textiles. The tariff was lowered in 1832 to avoid exacerbating the crisis. President Andrew Jackson threatened to use federal troops to enforce the tariff, but South Carolina backed down when the compromise measure passed Congress.