The Doctrine of Nullification: Toward a New Theory of Black Politics

Document Type

Journal Article

Publication Date


Date Added



As early as John Winthrop and the Puritans’s “errand in the wilderness,” those who settled what would become the United States have conceived of America as a “new thing in the world,” a “New Israel,” “a city on a hill,” the embodiment of the “state of nature,” and heirs to a great experiment in human freedom. This is eloquently expressed in its founding creed: the idea that all men are created equal and equally endowed to certain unalienable rights, including the “right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” It is because of these explicitly stated first principles that makes its coexistence with a long history of chattel slavery and Jim Crow segregation such a jarring contradiction. Ever since then, the “American Dilemma,” the chasm between America’s ideals and its actual treatment of African Americans, has bedeviled American democracy. Despite the tumultuous changes that the nation has experienced since its founding – the American Revolution, westward expansion, the Civil War and Reconstruction, mass industrialization and urbanization, the World Wars, the emergence of the United States as a superpower, the modern civil rights movement, or the election of the nation’s first African American president – race has remained remarkably resilient as a defining feature of American politics. In spite of this history, what is remarkable is how many observers of American politics were caught off guard by Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election of 2016. Especially when it is considered that he follows Barack Obama to the White House – after emerging as a presidential possibility by being the national spokesman for the “birther movement” which denied that President Obama was a citizen of the United States. I argue that this should not have been surprising, but not for the usual reason (that America is inherently racist). Rather, I argue that the “backlash to Obama” that culminated in Trump’s election is not an aberration, but part of a historical pattern. Every political advance by African Americans is accompanied by a predictable racist backlash or reversal in the fortunes of blacks. Thus, for example, the destruction of slavery and Reconstruction was followed by Plessy v. Ferguson and the regime of Jim Crow; similarly, the gains of the civil rights movement have inspired a similar backlash. This paper argues that the “two steps forward, one step back” pattern of black progress and struggle in America can be explained by the doctrine of nullification. This doctrine can be traced back to the Nullification Crisis of 1832-1833, ostensibly a constitutional showdown between South Carolina and the federal government over the Tariffs of 1828 and 1832. In reality, the controversy was a thinly-veiled confrontation over whether the national government could regulate slavery. I maintain that the significance of this oft-forgotten episode in American history extends far beyond the fact that it constituted a “dress rehearsal” for the Civil War three decades later. Rather, the principles of nullification are the norm – not the exception – as far as how the United States has dealt with its African American citizens. In this tradition, universal liberties for all American citizens are proclaimed in constitutional provisions and legal statutes. However, with African Americans, they are denied in practice. Therefore, the doctrine of nullification, rather than dying in the embers of the “Irrepressible Conflict” instead resurfaces again and again throughout American history. If I am right, the doctrine of nullification provides a useful theoretical framework to explain the ebb and flow of race in American politics.


Civil Rights


Political Science