- Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions
The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions (or Resolves) were important political statements in favor of
states' rightswritten secretly by Vice President Thomas Jeffersonand James Madisonin 1798. They were passed by the two states in opposition to the federal Alien and Sedition Acts. Though often mentioned as a pair in modern historical discussions, they were actually two separate documents. The Kentucky Resolutions were written by Jefferson and passed by the state legislature on November 16, 1798, with one more being passed the following year on December 3, 1799. The Virginia Resolutions were written by Madison and passed by the state legislature on December 24, 1798. Jefferson and Madison collaborated on the writing of the two documents, but their authorship was not known for many years. The resolutions attacked the Sedition Acts, which extended the powers of the federal government over individuals inside the states. The resolutions declared that the Constitution was a "compact." That is, it was an agreement among the states. The federal government had no right to exercise powers not specifically delegated to it; should the federal government assume such powers, its acts under them would be void. Thus it was the right of the states to decide as to the constitutionality of such laws passed by Congress.
The resolutions were submitted to other states for approval but with no success. In
New Hampshire, newspapers treated them as military threats and replied with sinister foreshadowings of civil war. "We think it highly probable that Virginia and Kentucky will be sadly disappointed in their infernal plan of exciting insurrections and tumults," proclaimed one. The other states legislature's unanimous reply was blunt:
At a more serious level,
Alexander Hamilton, then building up the army, suggested sending it into Virginia, on some “obvious pretext.” Measures would be taken, Hamilton hinted to an ally in Congress, “to act upon the laws & put Virginia to the Test of resistance.” [February 2, 1799, "Hamilton Papers" vol 22 pp 452-53.]
The Resolutions joined the foundational beliefs of Jefferson's party and were used as party documents in the 1800 election. As they had been shepherded to passage in the Virginia House of Delegates by John Taylor of Caroline, they became part of the heritage of the "Old Republicans." Taylor, unlike James Madison, rejoiced in what the House of Delegates had made of private citizen Madison's draft: it had read the claim that the Alien & Sedition Acts were unconstitutional as meaning that they had "no force or effect" in Virginia – that is, that they were void. Numerous scholars (including, amazingly, Koch and Ammon) have noted that Madison had the words "void, and of no force or effect" excised from the Resolutions before adoption, but without noting why the Republican majority agreed to this textual change: the Republicans joined future Virginia Governor and U.S. Secretary of War James Barbour in the conclusion that "unconstitutional" included "void, and of no force or effect." Far from moderating the Resolutions' content, then, the textual change Madison secured was meaningless. Their long-term importance lies not in their attack on the Sedition law, but rather in their strong statements of states' rights theory, which led to rather different concepts of
nullificationand interposition. Jefferson at one point drafted a threat for Virginia to secede, but dropped it from the text. In January 1800, the Virginia General Assembly passed the Report of 1800, a document by Madison affirming the principles of the Resolutions and responding to criticism they had received.
Although the legislatures of the New England states all immediately rejected the resolutions, some soon supported the principles of interposition and/or nullification. The state governments of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island all threatened to ignore the
Embargo Act of 1807based on the authority of states to stand up to laws deemed by those states to be unconstitutional (though they did not in fact try to nullify the laws). Rhode Island's justification for its position after the embargo was based on the explicit language of interposition. Within five years, Massachusetts and Connecticut again asserted the right of the states to their own test of constitutionality when they were instructed to send their militias to defend the coast during the War of 1812. Another embargo passed in 1813 that hurt New England trade was questioned once again by Connecticut and Massachusetts; the supreme courts of both states issued their objections, including this statement from the Massachusetts General Court:
Decades after the Resolutions were published, during the "
nullification crisis" of 1828–1833, South Carolinathreatened to nullify a federal law regarding tariffs. Andrew Jacksonissued a resounding proclamation against the doctrine of nullification, stating: "I consider...the power to annul a law of the United States, assumed by one State, incompatible with the existence of the Union, contradicted expressly by the letter of the Constitution, unauthorized by its spirit, inconsistent with every principle on which it was founded, and destructive of the great object for which it was formed." He also denied the right of secession: "The Constitution...forms a government not a league...To say that any State may at pleasure secede from the Union is to say that the United States is not a nation." [ [http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/presiden/proclamations/jack01.htm President Jackson's Proclamation Regarding Nullification] ] Later, Abraham Lincolnalso rejected the compact theory saying the Constitution was a binding contract among the states and no contract can be changed unilaterally by one party.
Historians have been divided on the importance of the resolutions. Some have been ambivalent because of their long-term impact. As Jefferson's biographer explains:
* Elkins, Stanley and Eric McKitrick. "The Age of Federalism" (1995)
* [Keving Gutzman|Gutzman, K [evin] R. Constantine] , "'O, What a Tangled Web We Weave ...': James Madison and the Compound Republic," _Continuity 22 (1998), 19-29.
*Gutzman, Kevin R., "A Troublesome Legacy: James Madison and the 'Principles of '98,'" Journal of the Early Republic 15 (1995), 569-89.
* Gutzman, K [evin] R. Constantine, "The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions Reconsidered: 'An Appeal to the _Real Laws_ of Our Country,'" Journal of Southern History 66 (2000), 473-96.
* Koch, Adrienne. and Harry Ammon. "The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions: An Episode in Jefferson's and Madison's Defense of Civil Liberties," "William and Mary, Quarterly" April 1948, pp. 145-76. online at JSTOR
* Koch, "Jefferson and Madison: The Great Collaboration" (1950), ch. 7.
* Watkins, William. "Reclaiming the American Revolution: The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions and Their Legacy" (2004), an encomium of the resolutions.
* [http://www.constitution.org/cons/kent1798.htm Text of Kentucky Resolutions]
* [http://www.constitution.org/cons/virg1798.htm Text of Virginia Resolution]
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