There is no easier way for tyranny to take hold than for a People to remain silent when they know, or should know, what their rights are. There is no easier way for a government to usurp the natural rights of a People to govern themselves than for them to stand by and let that government legislate when it has no authority to do so.
The early colonists certainly didn’t miss an opportunity to stand up for their rights. In fact, the Sons of Liberty formed (much like today’s Tea Party and Tenth Amendment Center) to point out where Britain was violating their rights and to help organize opposition and protest. Samuel Adams, the leader of the Sons of Liberty in Boston, wrote the following in 1769 with these words:
REVOLVING time hath brought about another anniversary of the repeal of the odious Stamp Act,—an act framed to divest us of our liberties and to bring us to slavery, poverty, and misery. The resolute stand made by the Sons of Liberty against the detestable policy had more effect in bringing on the repeal than any conviction in the Parliament of Great Britain of the injustice and iniquity of the act . It was repealed from principles of convenience to Old England, and accompanied with a declaration of their right to tax us; and since, the same Parliament have passed acts which, if obeyed in the Colonies, will be equally fatal. Although the people of Great Britain be only fellow-subjects, they have of late assumed a power to compel us to buy at their market such things as we want of European produce and manufacture; and, at the same time, have taxed many of the articles for the express purpose of a revenue; and, for the collection of the duties, have sent fleets, armies, commissioners, guard acostas, judges of admiralty, and a host of petty officers, whose insolence and rapacity are become intolerable. Our cities are garrisoned; the peace and order which heretofore dignified our streets are exchanged for the horrid blasphemies and outrages of soldiers; our trade is obstructed ; our vessels and cargoes, the effects of industry, violently seized; and, in a word, every species of injustice that a wicked and debauched Ministry could invent is now practiced against the most sober, industrious, and loyal people that ever lived in society. The joint supplications of all the Colonies have been rejected; and letters and mandates, in terms of the highest affront and indignity, have been transmitted from little and insignificant servants of the Crown to his Majesty’s grand and august sovereignties in America.
These things being so, it becomes us, my brethren, to walk worthy of our vocation, to use every lawful mean to frustrate the wicked designs of our enemies at home and abroad, and to unite against the evil and pernicious machinations of those who would destroy us.
From a small, secret group of agitators in Boston and in Connecticut, the Sons of Liberty grew to the point that there was a group in every one of the thirteen colonies. They organized demonstrations, circulated petitions, published newspaper articles, distributed flyers and handbills, and in general did all they could to bring the message of liberty to the colonists. But it was their simple acts of civil disobedience – like protesting a tax on tea by dumping 342 chests of tea into the Boston Harbor, protesting the tax on documents (Stamp Act) by forcing officials to the Crown to resign or to refrain from unloading ships from Britain, or forming angry mobs in response to the Quartering Act – which prevented the enforcement of some of the acts of Parliament that the colonists found intolerable. It was when the King responded with further punitive and oppressive measures – which Jefferson would refer to as “abuses and usurpations” – it was clear the colonies would have to declare their independence in order to remain free.
By frustrating the enforcement of the Stamp Act and the other intolerable, the Sons of Liberty exercised their early right of nullification. They recognized that the British Parliament had no right to legislate for them when they were not provided representation, as guaranteed in their English Bill of Rights of 1689. Any piece of legislation that is passed without proper authority is automatically null and void and cannot be rightfully enforced. This is the basis of the doctrine of Nullification. The Sons of Liberty stood up for this principle and energized the colonists to stand up for their rights and especially their right NOT TO SUBMIT to laws that were not properly passed in accordance with their government charters.
Nullification, as you can see, is an important check and balance on the power of the federal government, which seeks, at every turn, to enlarge and concentrate its powers and to pervert the meaning and intent of the Constitution. There has been no greater enemy than the federal courts which now openly, flagrantly, and arrogantly declare that the Constitution is a “living, breathing document” that is to be re-interpreted willy nilly and as they, the judges, believe will best reflect and serve the social norms of the day.
In fact, nullification is probably the most important check and balance of them all. Dual and co-equal sovereigns, each jealously guarding their respective sphere of power, will maintain that delicate balance of power that our founding fathers designed and which the states themselves agreed to. It’s the same way that two skilled attorneys, adversarial in nature (the prosecution and the defense) will aggressively provide that justice is served. And it’s the same way that two political parties, one to the left in its ideology and the other to the right, will ultimately assure that policy remains somewhat in the middle so that our society is tolerable for everyone.
In Federalist No. 33, Alexander Hamilton asked and answered an important question. “If the federal government should overpass the just bounds of its authority and make a tyrannical use of its powers, the people, whose creature it is, must appeal to the standard they have formed, and take such measures to redress the injury done to the Constitution as the exigency may suggest and prudence justify.”
Hamilton doesn’t limit the measures that people can use to redress the situation when government oversteps the bounds of its authority. According to Hamilton, the remedy should be in proportion to the violation. If we are to take Hamilton at his word for the government’s taxing power, we should, with the same enthusiasm, take him at his word for the ability to push the government back within the bound of the Constitution.
The truth is that nullification is a valid constitutional doctrine “in case of a deliberate, palpable, and dangerous exercise of other powers, not granted by said compact (US Constitution).” James Madison, Virginia Resolutions of 1798. The states that wrote, debated, amended (Bill of Rights), and ratified the Constitution to create the federal government are the rightful parties that have the authority, and are indeed “duty-bound, to interpose (intercede) for arresting the progress of the evil, and for maintaining within their respective limits, the authorities, rights, and liberties appertaining to them.” Virginia Resolutions of 1798.
The truth is that nullification, while not under that express term, was an important principle and an important tool to prevent abusive and unconstitutional laws from being enforced on the colonists/colonies and then on the citizens of the various “united” States and the states themselves when the US Constitution was adopted.
The fallacy is that the Constitution itself, through the Supremacy Clause, renders nullification an illegitimate remedy.
The fallacy is that the Supreme Court, as the ultimate authority on the intent and meaning of the Constitution, has rejected the doctrine.
The fallacy is that nullification was the favored state remedy of slavery proponents and white supremacists. And the fallacy is that the Civil War distinguished rightful remedies to limit government power.
Diane was born in New Jersey and lived there most of her life. She attended Seton Hall University School of Law where Judge Andrew Napolitano was her constitutional law professor.She and her family moved to Greenville, NC in 2001.She is married and has 4 children.
Latest posts by Diane Rufino (see all)
- Nullification: The Power to Right Wrongs - July 22, 2015
- The Supremacy Clause and Proper Constitutional Bounds - August 27, 2013
- Why Nullification? - August 26, 2013