Taken together, the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions of 1798 outlined the principles of nullification. But they didn’t actually nullify anything. In fact, they were intended as just a starting point.
On November 17, 1798, one week after passage of the Kentucky Resolutions, Thomas Jefferson sent a draft to James Madison, along with a letter. He wrote:
I inclose you a copy of the draught of the Kentucky resolves. I think we should distinctly affirm all the important principles they contain, so as to hold to that ground in the future, and leave the matter in such a train as that we may not be committed absolutely to push the matter to extremities, & yet may be free to push as far as events will render prudent.
A return letter from Madison to Jefferson, recorded in Jefferson’s journal as received on Dec. 20th, has never been found.
However, on Dec. 24, 1798, the Virginia Senate passed resolutions penned by Madison, further asserting not just the right, but the duty of states to step in and stop federal overreach.
Taken together, the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions lay out the principles of nullification. But they did not actually nullify the Alien and Sedition Acts, or anything for that matter. These non-binding resolutions merely made the case for nullification, and called on other states to join them for further action.
Correspondence between Jefferson and Madison tells us they didn’t plan to stop with a mere statement of principles. They were building the foundation for something greater. As Jefferson wrote in his letter, the goal was to push the matter “as far as events will render prudent.”
Understood in this correct historical context, the resolutions provide an invaluable blueprint on how to stop federal power today.
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