Force Bill: An Early Battle of Federal vs. States’ Rights

Eagle Versus Snakes

Harbach & Brother/The New York Historical Society/Getty Images

The Force Bill was a law passed by the United States Congress that temporarily gave the President of the United States the power to use the U.S. military to enforce the collection of federal import duties in states that refused to pay them.

Enacted on March 22, 1833, at the prompting of President Andrew Jackson, the bill was intended to force the state of South Carolina to comply with a series of federal tariff laws that had been opposed by Vice President John C. Calhoun. Passed in hopes of resolving the Nullification Crisis of 1832, the Force Bill was the first federal law to officially deny the individual states the right to disregard or override federal laws or to secede from the Union.

Key Takeaways: Force Bill of 1833

  • The Force Bill, enacted on March 2, 1833, authorized the president of the United States to use the U.S. military to enforce federal laws. More specifically, it had the goal of forcing South Carolina to pay federal import tariffs.
  • The bill was passed in response to the Nullification Crisis of 1832, when South Carolina issued a nullification ordinance allowing the state to ignore a federal law if it deemed it damaging to its interests.
  • To diffuse the crisis and avoid military intervention, Henry Clay and Vice President John C. Calhoun introduced the Compromise Tariff of 1833, which gradually but significantly reduced the tariff rates imposed on the southern states.

Nullification Crisis

The Nullification Crisis of 1832-33 arose after the legislature of South Carolina declared that tariff laws enacted by the U.S. federal government in 1828 and 1832 were unconstitutional, null and void, and thus unenforceable within the state.

By 1833, South Carolina had been particularly harmed by the U.S. economic downturn of the 1820s. Many of the state’s politicians blamed South Carolina’s financial ills on the Tariff of 1828—the so-called “Tariff of Abominations”—intended to protect American manufacturers from their European competitors. South Carolina’s lawmakers expected incoming president Andrew Jackson, a presumed champion of states’ rights, to greatly reduce the tariff. When Jackson failed to do so, the state’s most radical politicians successfully pressed for passage of legislation overriding the federal tariff law. The resulting Ordinance of Nullification also held the threat that South Carolina would secede from the Union if the federal government tried to enforce the collection of tariffs.

In Washington, the crisis drove a wedge between Jackson and his vice president, John C. Calhoun, a native South Carolinian and vocal believer in the theory that the U.S. Constitution allowed the states to nullify federal laws under certain circumstances.

“An Act further to provide for the collection of duties on imports”

Far from supporting or at least accepting South Carolina’s defiance of federal law, President Jackson considered its Ordinance of Nullification to be the equivalent of an act of treason. In a draft of his “Proclamation to the People of South Carolina” delivered on December 10, 1832, Jackson urged the state’s lawmakers, “Rally again under the banners of the union whose obligations you in common with all your countrymen have,” asking them, “Can (you) … consent to become Traitors? Forbid it, Heaven.”

Along with the unlimited power to order the closure of ports and harbors, the Force Bill more significantly authorized the president to deploy the U.S. Army to South Carolina to enforce federal laws. The functional provisions of the bill include:

Section 1: Enforces the collection of federal import duties by authorizing the president to close ports and harbors; to order the detention of cargo vessels in ports and harbors, and to use armed forces to prevent the unauthorized removal of untaxed vessels and cargo.

Section 2: Extends the jurisdiction of the federal courts to include cases involving federal revenue collections and allows persons suffering losses in revenue cases to sue for recovery in court. It also declares all property seized by federal customs collectors to be the property of the law until legally disposed of by the courts, and makes it a criminal misdemeanor to possess property subject to seizure by customs officers.

Section 5: Essentially outlaws secession by authorizing the president to use whatever “military and other force” necessary to suppress all forms of insurrection or civil disobedience within the states and to enforce the execution of all federal laws, policies, and processes within the states.

Section 6: Prohibits the states from refusing to jail persons “arrested or committed under the laws of the United States” and authorizes U.S. marshals to jail such persons in “other convenient places, within the limits of said state.”

Section 8: Is a “sunset clause,” providing that the “first and fifth sections of this act, shall be in force until the end of the next session of Congress, and no longer.”

It should be noted that in 1878, Congress enacted the Posse Comitatus Act, which today prohibits the use of U.S. military forces to directly enforce federal laws or domestic policy inside the borders of the United States.

The Compromise

With the passage of the Force Bill, Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun sought to diffuse the Nullification Crisis before it escalated to the point of military intervention by introducing the Compromise Tariff of 1833. Enacted along with the Force Bill on March 2, 1833, the Tariff of 1833 gradually but significantly reduced the tariff rates that had been imposed on the southern states by the 1828 Tariff of Abominations and the Tariff of 1832.

Satisfied with the Compromise Tariff, the South Carolina legislature repealed its Nullification Ordinance on March 15, 1833. However, on March 18, it voted to nullify the Force Bill as a symbolic expression of state sovereignty.

The Compromise Tariff had ended the crisis to the satisfaction of both parties. However, the rights of the states to nullify or ignore federal law would again become controversial during the 1850s as slavery spread into the western territories.

While the Force Bill had rejected the idea that the states could nullify federal law or secede from the Union, both issues would arise as central differences leading up to the American Civil War.

Sources and Further Reference

  • “.” (Full Text). Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashbrook College.
  • “.” Yale Law School.
  • Taussig, F.W. (1892). “.” Teaching American History.org
  • Remini, Robert V. “.” Harper-Collins Publishers, 2001. ISBN-13: 978-0061807886.