- The Political Economy of NullificationOhio and the Bank of the United States, 1818-1824
Between twelve and one o'clock on the afternoon of September 17, 1819, a wagon pulled up in front of the Chillicothe Office of Discount and Deposit, one of the two branch offices of the Bank of the United States in Ohio. Dismounting from the wagon, John Harper and his companions James McCollister and Thomas Orr burst into the bank's lobby. McCollister and Orr, "in a ruffian-like manner," quickly jumped the counter and made their way to the bank's vault. The bank's cashier, Abraham Claypoole, attempted to block McCollister and Orr and protect the vault, but was "forcibly prevented" from doing so by Harper, who had roughly "intruded himself behind the counter." Claypoole remonstrated with the men and repeatedly tried to detain them, but he was again "forcibly repulsed" as Harper and his companions made off with more than $120,000 from the bank's vault. Frustrated in their efforts to apprehend the "ruffians," Claypoole and the bank's president, William Creighton, could only give a deposition of the afternoon's events to Chillicothe's mayor and hurriedly write the central office of the Bank of the United States for further instructions.1
The events of the seventeenth would have been sensational enough if they were a simple bank robbery. But this episode was much more complex. Harper and his cohorts were not mere "ruffians"; they were state officials operating under a commission from the Auditor of Ohio. Their confrontation with Claypoole and the forcible removal of funds from the Chillicothe branch's vault were actually efforts to collect a tax—a levy mandated by Ohio's legislature with the intent of driving the branch offices of the Bank of the United States out of the state altogether. In collecting the tax, Ohio's leadership firmly asserted what [End Page 79] it saw as the state's inviolable sovereignty against the perceived abuse of federal powers represented by the Bank. In addition, the day's proceedings were in direct defiance of the United States Supreme Court's ruling in the case of McCulloch v. MaryMaryland, handed down earlier that year, which held that taxation of the Bank or any of its branches was outside the purview of a state's powers. Ohio's decision to ignore the ruling and proceed with its attempts to tax the Bank out of existence represented an intensification of a larger struggle against not only the Bank but against what Ohioans saw as the corrupt and despotic national authority that lay behind the its actions. With its defiance of that national authority, and espousal of states' rights ideology and nullification, Ohio's battle against the Bank of the United States became a larger conflict over the locus of sovereignty. The leadership of Ohio's anti-Bank forces was determined to preserve a particular vision of the ideal polity, a vision that it saw as fundamentally threatened by the operations of the national Bank within the state. In their use of the ideals of states' rights and nullifi cation, Ohioans tapped into a wider tradition in antebellum political culture—a tradition that sought to preserve republican virtues against the forces of corruption and arbitrary despotism and which placed the idea of Union distinctly second to this preservation.2
Ohio had not always been a hotbed of anti-Bank sentiment. In fact, the years immediately following the War of 1812 were a period of heady economic prosperity for the state—prosperity that owed a large part of its existence to a rapid expansion of banking. Ohio was caught up in an economic boom experienced to some degree by most of the country after the war's conclusion in 1815. A continuing agricultural surplus that fed a high European demand, as well as the proliferation of salable land and easy credit, however, made Ohio a singular example of economic growth. Financing this boom was a rapidly expanding armada of state-chartered banks. Before the War of 1812, there were four of these state-sanctioned banks operating in Ohio, with a total capitalization of just under...