America has had a long tradition of political discourse. Enough so, that a whole governmental system was developed with strong recognition of our disagreements. Throughout American history, men of great courage stood up for what they thought was right, even when others scorned them. Most notably were the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions of 1798 and 1799, respectively.
These Resolutions (or Resolves) were public proclamations which asserted each State’s right to snub the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, passed by President John Adams. These acts, which banned negative speech directed at the Federal Government and imprisonment for “threating” Aliens, were a heavy handed malfeasance by the Federal Government – an utter usurpation of its enumerated power. These two resolutions, commonly known as the Principles of 98’, are still referenced today by those who wish to assert States’ rights as a counterweight to federal power. They laid the theoretical foundation for other States to openly rebuke Federal laws not in step with the Constitution.
James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the above mentioned Resolutions, viewed these edicts as correct and assertive steps each State should take in rejecting the Alien and Sedition Acts. Rather than wait for the Federal Government to demote their erroneous authority, Jefferson and Madison declared the sovereignty of each State to assert their defiance within the Constitutional compact.
Madison believed that the States were “duty bound” to refuse participation of federal laws not in pursuance of the Constitution. Both correctly prescribed the Alien and Sedition Acts to be outside the scope of the Federal Government’s enumerated powers and therefore delegate to the individual States to supervise.
Jefferson most notably wrote that the federal “government created by this compact was not made the exclusive or final judge of the extent of the powers delegated to itself;” explaining that it was unfit to be its own arbiter. By being in a position where the federal courts judge their own power, it would “stop nothing short of despotism.” The only logical solution, therefore, would be for the State’s to have final authority.
Initially, Madison and Jefferson were unsuccessful in garnering surrounding State government support. However, public discontentment towards these acts and the election of 1800 ushered in a new era of the Democratic-Republicans, who ultimately ended John Adams and the Federalist Party; all but the Alien Enemies Act were allowed to expire in 1800 and 1801.
Ironically, antagonistic States later applied the Principles of 98’, ranging from opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act 1850 in Wisconsin, the Embargo Act of 1807 in New England and most recently parts of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act 2010 in Georgia. The lessons learned by these Resolutions are vital to checking the expansive power of the federal government and should be used readily as the “rightful remedy” to that encroachment. Every State continues to retain their sovereignty and should assert their right to interposition to retain their ability of self-governing.
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