The Creoles’ Magician: States’ Rights and Nullification in Louisiana

Joel Walker Sturgeon
A miniature portrait of a thin white man with dark hair wearing a formal black coat and a white shirt with a high collar.

Portrait of Edward Livingston by Anson Dickinson, circa 1827. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In the bone-chilling winter of 1832–1833, a cloud of trepidation hovered above the United States, as the young republic struggled to navigate its first real internal survival test as an independent nation. The Whiskey Rebellion, the Hartford Convention, indeed, even the Missouri Crisis’ notorious 1820 firebell sounded a mute note by comparison to the sirens that resounded nationwide throughout the infamous Nullification Crisis. In mid-1833, however, by some miraculous force of will that ran contrary to all public expectations, the Nullification Crisis simmered down and reached a bloodless culmination. Against all odds, the peacemakers scored an unexpected, come-from-behind victory over the jingoes. Indeed, this unexpected resolution was perhaps the greatest work of misdirection and political sorcery executed by the Little Magician, acting Vice President Martin Van Buren.

My piece for the JER details an interesting and significant subplot within the broader Jacksonian drama whereby the Nullification Crisis provided the perfect red herring to shield Georgia’s illegal usurpations against the Cherokee Nation. It closely examines the life and career of Edward Livingston, whose eloquent pro-unionist prose, at once, fulfilled the process of Creole national inclusion and condemned American Indians to a fate of forced exclusion. As President Jackson’s secretary of state and designated ghostwriter, Livingston played perhaps the most critical role in shaping the national narrative during the Nullification Crisis. In this piece, I would like to dig deeper into his story and that of his adopted Louisiana homeland.

Forced into virtual exile from his native New York, the disgraced former representative and mayor fled to the newly purchased Louisiana Territory in 1804. There Livingston reinvented himself as a somewhat unlikely champion of the region’s Creole population, aiding in the preservation of distinct legal traditions and promoting national acceptance of the largely Catholic, French-speaking inhabitants. Additionally, his service under then-General Andrew Jackson during the Battle of New Orleans placed Livingston forever in Old Hickory’s good graces. Like most Americans at the time, Jackson viewed the state’s Catholic, dark-complexioned, Francophone natives as treacherous and perhaps even racially unfit for republican governance. Livingston, however, mitigated the general’s worst impulses and helped normalize the idea of Creole Louisiana as a distinct but tolerated place among sister states.

Livingston’s career played out in Louisiana’s unique and polarized atmosphere, which pitted zealously Jacksonian Anglo migrants against staunchly Francophone Creoles who retained a bitter grudge against the general for his former callous treatment. Perhaps more significantly, however, the state’s Anglo Jacksonians usually planted cotton and shared the rest of the slaveholding South’s enmity for the national tariff, while the sugar-growing Creoles became outliers among enslavers for their dedication to the tariff that shielded their profits from Cuban competition. Thus, as both an ally to Louisiana Creoles and a favorite of Jackson, Livingston held great insight pertaining to the rising tariff issue.

Consequently, as Jackson’s secretary of state in 1832, the linguistically gifted Livingston became Van Buren’s perfect instrument. Drawing from his decades of experience as a Louisiana statesman, he articulated for Jackson a stirring, conciliatory message that inspired unionism and cajoled proactive initiative against vilified Calhounites. Livingston issued inflammatory and highly publicized denouncements against South Carolina on the president’s behalf, which created a vacuum of public fear concerning disunionist threats. Meanwhile, as patriotic fervor gripped North and South alike, Van Buren quietly negotiated with Georgia authorities, enabling state efforts to subvert Chief Justice John Marshall’s recent holding and disempower the Cherokee Nation.

Outside of Louisiana, however, Livingston’s keen rhetoric served a very different purpose by keeping the American public distracted. In all, the Jackson Administration’s noise against South Carolina proved far less consequential than its silence against Georgia. As the Nullification Crisis drew to an anticlimactic culmination, the real resolutions came to fruition in South Carolina’s neighboring Georgia, where the contest crystallized a new states’-rights political philosophy that ultimately resulted in the Trail of Tears and significantly shaped the coming of the Civil War.

Edward Livingston’s excellent prose that later inspired Abraham Lincoln’s response to southern secession held tragic and ironic implications. On the one hand, his bold unionism served to complete the process of Creole national inclusion, one that saw Louisiana’s ethnically distinct population embraced by an American community that shunned cultural non-conformity in nearly every other instance. On the other hand, Livingston’s vitriolic fervor helped Van Buren manage the national narrative, quietly cut a deal with Georgia, and ultimately sever American Indians from their legally affirmed rights under U.S. treaty and law.

For Louisiana, the Nullification Crisis represented a significant milestone in the state’s process of Americanization. In Livingston’s denouncements of South Carolina, long-divided Anglo and Creole rivals finally found common ground. The state’s Anglo Jacksonians lauded his deft pro-administration unionism, as loyalty to the beloved executive far outweighed any tariff animosity. At the same time, Louisiana’s sugar-planting Creoles cheered Livingston’s call for national selflessness, particularly where it encouraged Carolinians to set aside personal interests and embrace the tariff for the nation’s good. Thus, Anglo and Creole alike stepped forward with a conjoined spirit of nationalism, and Louisiana transformed from a region defined by separatism into one of the slaveholding South’s strongest hubs of unionism. Though political differences remained, both factions remained invested in the United States until 1861.

18 September 2023

About the Author

Joel Walker Sturgeon is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Mississippi.

Recent Contributions to the JER
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