David Yates

'Nullification Crisis of 1832’ Still Resonates Today for History Major

Here’s a word you don’t hear every day: nullification. University of St. Thomas senior David Yates not only has heard it but he’s also studied it, written about it and even presented about it at a history symposium at Mississippi State University.

Yates, 22 and a Rosemount High School graduate, was one of five UST history majors to present papers and speak this past Memorial Day weekend at the Starkville, Miss., university. The symposium was centered on the U.S. Constitution and Civil War-era topics. Yates’ paper, “The Nullification Crisis of 1832,” was one he had written for a Constitutional History class in spring 2011 and then rewrote several times in order to present it at the symposium.

The Civil War is not the topic of everyday conversation in the north; still, most people are familiar with it – even if it’s only Gettysburg, or perhaps the battle of the ironclads – the Monitor and the Merrimack.  But Yates wants to know more.

“I like knowing the underlying cause,” he remarked in a recent interview. “I want to know – why is it like this? Why do we have this? … I like knowing the cause.”

One cause of the Civil War he points to is the Nullification Crisis of 1832, “a sectional crisis during the presidency of Andrew Jackson created by South Carolina's 1832 Ordinance of Nullification. This ordinance declared by the power of the State that the federal Tariffs of 1828 and 1832 were unconstitutional and therefore null and void within the sovereign boundaries of South Carolina,” according to Wikipedia.

“It was the first overt and publicized attempt by a state to actually act upon its desire to nullify a federal law,” Yates said. “The crisis escalated and escalated and then they just set it aside, basically. There was no resolution.”

“Because they kept putting it off, putting it off, it kept snowballing and eventually led to the Civil War,” he added.

In 1860, 28 years after the Nullification Crisis of 1832, the Union garrison at Fort Sumter, located in the Charleston, S.C., harbor, was attacked and forced to surrender. The Civil War had begun.

The Symposium for Historical Undergraduate Research, held annually at MSU, was a “big leap forward” in Yates' study of history. It required further research, more background material, and rewriting his paper in a manner that would facilitate its reading at the symposium. He said that "it served as the culmination of my work over the years. It was the realization of the whole process."

Writing the paper was a challenge. “It doesn’t matter how good a writer you are if you don’t write it in a way that you can read it out loud, and then if you don’t know how to read it out loud very well, you’re going to crash and burn,” Yates said.

To avoid flaming out at the symposium, the five history majors (Landon Rick, Renate Hohman, Matt Keliher, Maggie Whitacre and Yates, the History Department’s lead history tutor) devoted a lot of time reading their papers to each other. By the symposium they had nearly memorized all of the papers because they had heard them so often.

Accompanied by their mentor, Dr. Tom Mega, the Tommies were among 20-some presenters at the symposium. Papers were limited to approximately 10 pages; they read them for 20 minutes, and a 10- to 15-minute question-and-answer session followed.

If Yates had envisioned a tough audience in the south, where it seems nearly every town has a Civil War monument or cemetery, and often a battlefield memorial, it never developed. (There’s a Civil War memorial near the Mississippi State University campus, just outside of town.) “History is everything here,” two MSU professors told Yates. “You remember everything.” History is so big, in fact, that the MSU History Department has its own building.

“What was nice was the symposium was designed as a chance for undergrads to get experience for what they will have to do in graduate school,” said Yates, who has been accepted for admission into St. Thomas’ School of Law. “So there was less pressure, and they were more interested in giving feedback on how we did, and what we can do in the future to help prepare. The faculty down there was very welcoming and gave great feedback. It was fun to do.”

Editor's note: David Yates' travel to Mississippi was funded in part by a Student Travel grant from the Grants and Research Office.