Nullification is perhaps the best kept secret of our country’s history. A textbook in recent use at the University of Louisiana-Monroe, American Passages, devoted a meagre five out of its 1,003 total pages to the subject. This despite the past use of nullification in states across the Union on a variety of objects, such as a national bank, federal violations of the freedom of speech and of the press, illegitimate uses of the federal taxing power, and unconstitutional Supreme Court rulings.

While the details of any act of state nullification, past or present, would be beneficial for timid elected officials or uninformed citizens to read and contemplate, one has especial significance for us in Louisiana because of the oil drilling ban the federal government has put in place in the Gulf of Mexico: the federal government’s embargo law of 1813 and the response of the State of Massachusetts.

The embargo law of 1813 was intended to punish Great Britain for harassing American vessels at sea by barring all American trade with Great Britain. But as J. J. Kilpatrick noted in his book The Sovereign States, ‘Trade with Britain was the lifeblood of New England.’ Because of the federal embargo, ‘That blood was being drained away.’

The citizens of Massachusetts, suffering greatly because of the economic collapse that resulted from the trade ban, gathered in town halls across the state to discuss the matter and issued ‘a flood of memorials and remonstrances’ which the Massachusetts state Legislature then acted upon.

In Lloyd’s Report of Feb 18, 1814, Massachusetts declared, ‘A power to regulate commerce is abused, when employed to destroy it; and a manifest and voluntary abuse of power sanctions the right of resistance, as much as a direct and palpable usurpation. The sovereignty reserved to the States, was reserved to protect the citizens from acts of violence by the United States, as well as for purposes of domestic regulation. We spurn the idea that the free, sovereign and independent State of Massachusetts is reduced to a mere municipal corporation, without power to protect its people, and to defend them from oppression, from whatever quarter it comes. Whenever the national compact is violated, and the citizens of this State are oppressed by cruel and unauthorized laws, this Legislature is bound to interpose its power, and wrest from the oppressor his victim.’

It is noteworthy that Massachusetts refused to petition the federal government to repeal the embargo law, for that had proved fruitless in the past. Instead, Kilpatrick writes, ‘the people were urged patiently to wait “for the effectual interposition of the State Government for their relief.” The embargo, in the State’s official view, was “unconstitutional and void.”’

What was the effect of these state and local efforts? Kilpatrick again: ‘…the embargo act of December, 1813, was not effectively enforced and soon was repealed, largely because of the interposition of the New England States.’

Like Massachusetts in 1813, Louisiana’s economy is in peril because of the unconstitutional actions of the federal government. Then, it was a ban on trade; today, a ban on drilling.

Louisiana’s state legislators, governor, and judges ought to act with the same determination and bravery shown by our Yankee brethren 200 years ago. Passing the Freedom to Drill Act (available at would be a good place to start.

They should make it clear that they will use the powers of their offices to protect anyone wishing to drill off our coast from federal prosecution. And those eligible to serve on juries should resolve to find ‘not guilty’ anyone who might nevertheless be arrested and charged. Sheriffs, police jurors, unions, clergy – these and others should work to protect the livelihoods of our fellow Louisianans.

If there is to be a revival of the drilling industry off our coast, it will not come about by casting aside our dignity, by prostrating ourselves before federal bureaucrats as we seek their permission to exercise the very rights they have usurped from us. Let us choose another path, the way of virtue, the way of fortitude and perseverance. Let us nullify now.

Walt Garlington
Latest posts by Walt Garlington (see all)