Another week, another round of feverish Civil War 2.0 speculation. The cry of impending civil conflict has been raised so many times over the past eight years that all but the most hysteria-prone now respond with an irritated shrug. Yet the recent dispute between the Biden administration and Texas does bear a superficial resemblance to events that preceded the War Between the States. Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, with the support of 25 GOP governors, charges the federal government with failing to protect the Lone Star State against invasion by illegal immigrants.
In response, he has been putting up razor-wire fencing along the Rio Grande without federal approval. A still bolder move is his use of the Texas State Guard to protect this fencing from national immigration authorities with orders to remove it. The standoff evokes the Nullification Crisis of 1833 that saw South Carolina declare resistance against a federally imposed tariff on manufactured imports. The incident, which introduced the issue of states rebelling against the federal government, was one of the central precursors to the Civil War.
A tariff may seem an unlikely source of rebellious passions, but the import duty of 1828, called the “Tariff of Abominations” by opponents, brought into sharp relief the emerging tensions between North and South. Southern states, overwhelmingly dependent on the production of cash crops with slave labor, relied on free trade to obtain affordable products. A tariff was seen as a special favor to industrial manufacturers in the North, which benefited from a protectionist policy. Thus, the tariff indirectly raised the question of slavery, and made clear that the country was divided into two opposing sections.
The crisis is often discussed in the context of theoretical debates about states’ rights. But this debate would never have arisen if there weren’t a very real conflict of interests involved. Though the immediate issue was resolved—President Andrew Jackson threatened to respond with force, even as he offered a compromise tariff reduction—the underlying conflict didn’t go away. It was, in Lincoln’s famous phrasing, an “irrepressible conflict” that could only end with the utter subjugation of one section by the other. Reasonable Americans, not to mention serious historians, recognize that the Civil War wasn’t about the abstraction of “states’ rights”; the current border wrangle isn’t mainly about a constitutional abstraction, either.