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The ghost of John Calhoun now resides in the Missouri House of Representatives. Calhoun was Mr. Everything in government during the first half of the nineteenth century. He served as member of the U.S. House of Representatives, a U.S. senator, vice president, secretary of war, and secretary of state. He also did a tour in the South Carolina state legislature.
Calhoun championed nullification, the notion that a state could declare a national law null and void for that state, and therefore refuse to follow it. Many thought the U.S. Constitution’s Article 6’s supremacy clause, the statement that — and I quote — “the laws of the United States…shall be the supreme law of the land…and every state shall be bound thereby anything in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding” had settled whether the national or state government prevails. Calhoun and others disagreed and, after his home state of South Carolina seceded from the Union, this country fought its bloodiest war to settle the issue.
One hundred and forty-five years later, the Missouri House of Representatives has voted to reassert nullification. On March 16, it passed a resolution to add an amendment to the Missouri Constitution’s Bill of Rights stating that the national government — and I quote again — “shall not compel, directly or indirectly, any person, employer, or health care provider to participate in any health care system.” Since the new national health care reform legislation includes such mandates, this is an attempt to nullify it.
If Missouri’s Senate concurs with the resolution and a majority of Missouri voters in November support the amendment, the state will have fired the opening salvo in a new Civil War over whether, in Abraham Lincoln’s words, this nation “will long endure.” Fortunately, the dispute over whether Missouri’s constitution trumps national law will be decided in the courts, not on the battlefield. But, in the interim, one suspects John Calhoun is enjoying his political resurrection.
(The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. Louis Public Radio.)
Terry Jones is Professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri - St. Louis.