1833: One helluva year

First of a two-part series

Some major political battles were underway in the United States in 1833, the year our Rappahannock County was founded. Was the country to be run by private corporations or by its citizens? Were the rich to become richer and the poor poorer? Would President Andrew Jackson, having decisively won a second term in November 1832, be able to bring a democratic government to America instead of rule by a moneyed aristocracy?

And what would Rappahannock County do if the entire country fell apart? South Carolina was moving toward seceding from the Union over states rights and tariff issues (the “Nullification Crisis”). She might even take other southern states with her. Some thought England, France and Spain would be picking up the pieces of what was once the U.S.

Andrew Jackson, portrayed in 1833 as King Andrew the First, dressed in ermine and trampling under his feet the Judiciary of the United States, the Constitution of the United States, Internal Improvements and the Bank of the United States.
Andrew Jackson, portrayed in 1833 as King Andrew the First, dressed in ermine and trampling under his feet the Judiciary of the United States, the Constitution of the United States, Internal Improvements and the Bank of the United States. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

In January and February of 1833, at the peak of South Carolina’s Nullification Crisis, certain people in Culpeper County were petitioning the Virginia General Assembly to form a new county. This was finally granted on Feb. 8, 1833, and Rappahannock County came into being. What incredible timing!

As background, in late 1832, a South Carolina convention had passed “a nullification ordinance,” stating that the 1828 and 1832 tariff laws passed by Congress were unconstitutional. They violated states rights and were thus null and void. South Carolina would not collect revenues due to the Federal government, thereby violating Federal laws.

President Jackson countered by issuing a proclamation on Dec. 10, 1832, stating the tariff laws passed by Congress had the full backing of the Federal government. Grievances could be handled by the courts, by new measures in Congress or even by a constitutional amendment. In any event, Jackson intended to enforce the laws, and South Carolina’s “Nullifiers” took this as a direct threat to their state. Civil war was possible, just as Rappahannock County was born.

Fortunately, Virginia was divided on the issue. When Governor Floyd finally signed the act creating Rappahannock County, he was also working with the state legislature on a resolution that would suggest to both South Carolina and the Federal government that they seek a compromise on their untenable positions.

This resolution had gone through 365 amendments, or amendments to amendments, which some newspapers thought was laughable. Possibly Rappahannock’s creation act may have been a case of, “Shut these people up and let them form a county, we have a flaming crisis on our hands.”

This crisis had been building for a long time, but had recently taken an ominous turn. In late September, Jackson ordered any unreliable Federal troops stationed in South Carolina to be quietly replaced by loyal Unionist troops.

In early January 1833, the New York Gazette reported that the steamer David Brown had brought north some valuable plate and specie (gold and silver) shipped out by the Unionists, lest the nullifiers get their hands on it. Nullifiers in South Carolina were holding secessionist rallies, forming military units and drumming up support from other Southern states to join their cause against the Federal government.

The Columbia Times of Jan. 11, 1833, noted, “From the seaboard to the mountains, South Carolina is now one school of military discipline . . . .on the first of February, 12,000 Carolinians will be ready to serve their commander-in-chief [the Governor]. A company of mounted minute men will be ready in each district to move at the summons, to the scene of action, wherever it may be.”

Richmond’s Jeffersonian called upon South Carolina “to resist unto death . . . and that in 50 days Virginia will bring to her support 20,000 bayonets, wielded by men whose cry will be liberty or death.”

Jackson remained firm. On Jan. 2, 1833, the ship Jefferson from Hampton Roads was anchored in Charleston Roads, with five companies of troops for the garrison at Fort Moultrie. On Jan. 24, Jackson told John Poinsett, his trusted friend in South Carolina, “Even if the Governor should have the folly to attempt to prevent the militia from marching through his state to put the faction in South Carolina down and place himself at the head of an armed force for such a wicked purpose, I would arrest him at the head of his troops and hand him over to the civil authority for trial.”

Jackson also sought congressional backing for the collection of Federal revenues at sites in Charleston: Fort Moultrie, Castle Pinckney and aboard a nearby Federal revenue cutter. He also wanted explicit Congressional authorization to use military and state militias to carry out Federal laws. This was the so-called “Force Bill.”

What would happen if Rappahannock’s militia — attached to Virginia’s 34th Regiment by an act of the Virginia General Assembly on March 8, 1833 — was called by Governor Floyd to step forward and stop Unionist forces from marching through Virginia? President Jackson said he himself would lead the Unionist troops. Jackson, the famous general known as the “Hero of New Orleans” in the War of 1812 against the British, would certainly have cause divided loyalties.

Luckily, cooler heads prevailed, as leaders on both sides understood the enormity of the situation. But fast communication back in 1833 was by boat or by horse, which could take days, so there was danger of hotheads triggering a civil war.

When a widely respected newspaper commented (on Jan. 19, 1833) on a report that had gone “express” from Washington, D.C., to Charleston, S.C., and returned within five days, it was speculated that it was an experiment, but also caused great concern. It was recommended that the government give public notice of such speedy communications so as to prevent needless alarm.

Later, there was a note that the postmaster had established an express route, for future use if necessary, from Washington to Charleston, a distance of 544 miles via a postal route, with communication taking 48 hours, one way. This may have been Andrew Jackson’s need for what is now called a “hotline.”

Finally, on Feb. 12, 1833, four days after Rappahannock County came into being, the makings of a compromise was reached on the secession issue in both the Senate and the House. Tariffs were to be reduced over time. In addition, on the same day, Jackson complied with a Senate request, sending them copies of “all military and naval orders issued to commanders of troops or armed vessels on the Charleston Station, etc.”

One newspaper commented that, “They appeared to be in general pacific, defensive, cautionary and discreet, indicating at the same time some reason for apprehension of violence being attempted on the other side, etc., etc.” On March 2, Jackson signed both the compromise tariff bill and the Force Bill. In the House of Representatives, Virginia voted 20 to 1 for the tariff bill, but 13 to 8 against the “Force Bill.”

The secession crisis was over.

The role of newspapers

It should be remembered that in 1833 there was no electrical power anywhere. There was no photography, no telegraph, telephone, radio, television, Internet, email or social media. Newspapers were the main source of information, and there were an estimated 1,000 of them in the U.S. They rarely contained any illustrations or advertising, had no sports or entertainment sections and no comics; they were nothing but page after page of small print, about the size of the tiny text now seen on some smartphones.

But newspapers did contain verbatim transcriptions of Senate and House debates. During the crisis, certain editors in New York City set up a line of expresses over the 227-route between Washington, D.C., and New York City. Congressional debates completed on a Wednesday would reach New York City on Thursday evening at 8 p.m. All this was to keep the public apprised of the latest political twists and turns.

For Rappahannock County, there was the Culpeper Gazette, founded in 1827 by the then-editor of Warrenton’s Palladium of Liberty. This was a pro-Jackson newspaper. In those days, trenchant remarks passed between editors of newspapers.

For example, The Richmond Enquirer, a highly respected newspaper, started off a June 4, 1833 article with the following statement: “There is a little, miserable paper, published at Culpeper Courthouse, called The Culpeper Gazette, which now and then darts a straw at us . . . little in every sense of the word — little in dimensions, little in intellect, little in spirit, malignant as it is weak, and utterly unable to comprehend the motive and purposes of honorable men.”

Newspapers were widely distributed. Postage was minimal and articles in one newspaper were freely used in others, even at great distances from the original. For example, the Jacksonian newspaper, The Globe, in Washington, D.C., republished a news item from the Culpeper Gazette in August of 1832 that stated James F. Strother & Co., had taken over the newspaper.

Strother reaffirmed the paper’s pro-Jackson position by printing: “We go for the reelection of Andrew Jackson. His high moral character, his uncalculating and devoted patriotism, his broad and deep-rooted popularity may enable him to preserve the Union, but the election of Henry Clay would, as the blight of Heaven, cover this broad land with desolation and gloom.” The Culpeper Gazette lasted until 1836.

With the secession crisis over, Jackson delivered his second inaugural address to Congress on March 4, 1833, in the middle of an extreme snowstorm and freeze. In it, he neatly stressed state rights, plus the need for the Union to hold the states together. This inaugural address was published in newspapers throughout the country; the Richmond Enquirer printed it in their March 7 edition. Many in Rappahannock may have applauded Jackson’s closing remarks.

“I shall continue to exert all my faculties to maintain the just powers of the Constitution, and to transmit unimpaired to posterity the blessings of our federal union. At the same time, it will be my aim to inculcate, by my official acts, the necessity of exercising, by the general government, those powers only that are clearly delegated; to encourage simplicity and economy in the expenditures of the Government; to raise no more money from the people than may be requisite for these objects, and in a manner that will best promote the interests of all classes of the community, and of all portions of the union.

“Constantly bearing in mind that, in entering into society, ‘individuals must give up a share of liberty to preserve the rest,’ it will be my desire so to discharge my duties as to foster, with our brethren in all parts of the country, a spirit of liberal concession and compromise; and, by reconciling our fellow citizens to those partial sacrifices which they must unavoidably make, for the preservation of a greater good, to recommend our invaluable government and union to the confidence and affections of the American people.”

Fine words for the common man, but for the moneyed aristocracy they meant little. Meanwhile, another national crisis was looming, as Jackson was calling into question the banking system of the United States. More on this next time.

Don Audette
About Don Audette 28 Articles
Don Audette has a place in Sperryville, is a longtime member of the Rappahannock Lions and writes about local history in his "Yesterdays" column for the Rappahannock News.