The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions

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The response of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts.

The Resolutions and the Authors

When the Alien and Sedition Acts were passed there were many who supported the actions of John Adams administration while others were profoundly opposed to the measures. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were among those who found the acts egregious. They undertook to write responses for the states of Virginia and Kentucky. In Kentucky Thomas Jefferson’s resolve was sponsored by John Breckenridge, in Virginia Madison’s was sponsored by John Taylor. In both cases the authorship was secret to the public.

Madison and Jefferson were upset about the unconstitutional nature of the acts. The Bill of Rights was still in its infancy and yet the temptation to override the Constitution was too much for the Federalists; it smacked of tyranny. The resolves outlined what appropriate action could be taken by the states when such events presented themselves. With the two states adopting the measures the content of the resolves became the source of much debate.

Compact Theory

Outlined in the resolutions was the Compact Theory of government. They claimed that each state gave its sovereignty to the United States while the government worked to serve the needs of the states. When the government ceased to function for the good of the state they could withdraw from the compact and choose another path. Controversial at the time it became explosive when coupled with the concept of nullification. After the passage of the 1798 Kentucky resolution there was much criticism of the concepts. In response Jefferson authored a second resolve in 1799.

Nullification

The second act in Kentucky outlined the concept of nullification. If the individual state felt as though an act of Congress was unconstitutional they had the right, claimed Jefferson, to nullify the act. He wrote “that the several states who formed that instrument being sovereign and independent, have the unquestionable right to judge of the infraction.” At the time the courts had not yet been defined as the ultimate authority in the case of constitutional questions. This argument would resurface later when the southern states threatened and eventually seceded after the election of Lincoln in 1860.

Concerns and Conclusion

Adherence to the constitution was essential to the survival of the Union the two believed. By taking liberties the Adams and the other Federalists were dismantling what they had fought for. For Madison the potential for disaster was clear “if an indifference were now shown to the palpable violation of one of the rights thus declared and secured and to the establishment of a precedent which may be fatal to the other.”

In the end neither resolve was responsible for the direct repeal of the acts, but they did begin polarizing arguments that led to the Election of 1800. The Republican Jefferson would win that election and with his success came repeal or the scheduled expiration of the acts he found so dangerous.

Sources:

  1. Commager, Henry Steele. Documents of American History. New York: F.S. Crofts & Co., 1946.