Mayor Walsh’s Version of Nullification

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In 1832, South Carolina held a state convention which adopted the Ordinance of Nullification. This Ordinance declared that the Federal Tariff of 1832 was “null and void.” In effect, South Carolina was stating formally that a federal law dealing with a tariff law, which was felt to be unfair and harmful to South Carolina, would not be obeyed in their state. This was a tariff law which had been passed by Congress and signed by President Andrew Jackson. In fact, South Carolina’s Ordinance of Nullification went even further by threatening to secede from the Union, if President Jackson used force to coerce the state to obey federally enacted law.

To the extent that Boston Mayor Marty Walsh evinces an intention to defy federal law enforcement, his recent comments about illegal aliens (or undocumented persons, as progressives like to call them) look much like the 21st century version of nullification.

In his press conference on January 25th, Mayor Walsh called President Donald Trump’s executive orders and statements about immigrants “a direct attack on Boston’s people, Boston’s strength, and Boston values.” He went on to say that “we would not waste vital police resources on misguided federal actions.” These misguided federal actions, he implied, were the deportation of illegal aliens who had committed criminal acts. To top it off, he offered Boston’s City Hall as “a shelter” for those targeted or vulnerable to federal action.

Massachusetts has at least nine sanctuary cities:  Amherst, Boston, Cambridge, Chelsea, Lawrence, Northampton, Orleans, Somerville, and Springfield. There are, of course, many other large U.S. cities which are currently ignoring federal law on immigration and refusing to co-operate with federal agencies in the execution of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which was passed in 1996 and signed into law by President Bill Clinton.

Mayor Walsh wants to appear to be high minded and to be taking the moral high ground by not allowing the Boston police to co-operate with the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. However, his refusal to help enforce federal law is really a cynical political move, as his core electoral backing comes from recent immigrants, illegal aliens, and their enablers in Boston. His tough talk is also his way of using anti-Trump rhetoric to gain political stature nationally. While the issues are different, isn’t this reminiscent of the way mayors and governors acted in the 1950s and 1960s in the Deep South, defying federal law?

How did President Dwight Eisenhower and President John Kennedy deal with those bent on defying federal law? They sent in federal troops to enforce the law. When South Carolina adopted the Ordinance of Nullification, President Jackson immediately indicated that he considered this treason and sent ships to Charleston harbor and began to strengthen federal fortifications there.

How far does Mayor Walsh intend to go in his nullification efforts here in Boston this year?

At a time of perhaps the greatest political and ideological divide in America since the Civil War, it seems the better part of wisdom for Mayor Walsh and other mayors of great cities not to pour gasoline on the fires but rather to work quietly behind the scenes to craft compromises on this most divisive issue. That is what President Jackson and Vice President John Calhoun did to avoid secession and war in 1833, and that is what is needed now.


Robert H. Bradley is Chairman of Bradley, Foster & Sargent Inc., a $3 billion wealth management firm that has offices in Hartford, Connecticut, and Wellesley, Massachusetts. This column represents his personal views and does not represent the views of the firm.