In 1833, Calhoun became one of the first American politicians to attempt nullification when he led an effort to nullify a federal tariff that South Carolina opposed. Thirty years later, nullification played a significant role in the start of the Civil War when multiple states, South Carolina included, attempted to nullify federal laws about slavery.
Despite this checkered past, Paul said nullification “would be very good” to have in practice today because it would reduce the size of the federal government:
KEYES: We’re holding this conference in front of the statue of John C. Calhoun. What role do you his beliefs playing in politics today, particularly nullification?
PAUL: Well, to tell you the truth, I don’t feel comfortable right now pretending I can analyze everything he believed in and everything I believe in, so I think I’m going to beg off on that. But if he was a strict Constitutionalist and a states’ rights person, I’m sure that I would have a lot of agreement with him.
KEYES: Do you think nullification is still a valid political argument in society today?
PAUL: Certainly I think it is. And the Northeast states were the first ones to talk about nullification and also — I think nullifying laws, even if we never used it, to have it available would be very good. I think nullification would be a way to restrain the federal government. [...] I think nullification would be a very good principle. I think it probably wouldn’t be used that much, but our federal government would be much smaller than it is today had that principle been more clearly embedded in our Constitution.
This isn’t the first time Paul has endorsed nullification, but doing so in a state where nullification movements led to Civil War makes it particularly noteworthy. And while he claims it was “embedded” in what the drafters of the Constitution “understood,” the actual text they wrote seems to read differently.
The Constitution states clearly that Acts of Congress “shall be the supreme law of the land…anything in the Constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding” — meaning states do not reserve the right to void laws they don’t like.
Despite its blatant unconstitutionality and disturbing historical connotations, nullification has seen a resurgence in popularity among right-wing politicians who oppose laws ranging from health care reform to federal light bulb standards.