Today we’ll wrap up our examination of the Alien and Sedition Acts by looking at the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions. Authored by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson respectively, the resolutions argued that the Federal government had exceeded its authority under the Constitution and that states had the power to nullify unconstitutional Federal laws. These resolutions violated the supremacy clause of the Constitution: “this Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land.” By challenging the supremacy of Federal laws as a result of the Alien and Sedition Acts, Jefferson and Madison undermined the Constitution and set the stage for similar acts in the future.
In December 1798, the Virginia state legislature passed the Virginia Resolution in response to the Alien and Sedition Acts. Written by James Madison, the Resolution warned that if the Federal government engaged in a “deliberate, palpable, and dangerous exercise of their powers” individual states “are in duty, bound to interpose for arresting the progress of the evil.” Madison declared that the states were obligated to check the power of the Federal government if it exceeded its constitutionally mandated authority. The Resolution also lamented that “a spirit has in sundry instances, been manifested by the Federal government, to enlarge its powers by forced constructions of the constitutional charter that defines them.” The enlarging of these powers, Madison warned would be “to transform the present republican system of the United States, into an absolute, or at best a mixed monarchy.”
In response to the Alien and Sedition Acts, Kentucky passed two different resolutions. Thomas Jefferson wrote the first Kentucky Resolution in 1798. In 1799, the Kentucky legislature passed a second resolution (its author is unclear) arguing that states “being sovereign and independent, have the unquestionable right to judge of its infraction; and that a nullification, by those sovereignties, of all unauthorized acts done under colour of that instrument is the rightful remedy.” In other words, the states had the right to nullify (or set aside) Federal laws that the states judged to be unconstitutional. The Resolution also declared that “the alien and sedition laws, are in their opinion, palpable violations of the said constitution.” In the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, Madison and Jefferson had declared that the states had the right to challenge the supremacy of Federal laws and even nullify them.
The Alien and Sedition Acts and the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions were remarkable in another way as well. The law had prompted Jefferson to deliberately undermine the power and authority of the presidency, while serving as vice president. The efforts of the two founders of the Democratic-Republican party echoed throughout American history. George Washington believed the resolutions had the potential to destroy the United States. In 1832, John C. Calhoun, the South Carolina politician and slavery apologist, used the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions to nullify two tariffs enacted by Andrew Jackson. In the 1850s, Northern states passed laws declaring that the Fugitive Slave Act was null and void. The Alien and Sedition Acts helped create a dangerous precedent for states to undermine the power of the Federal government.
Copy of the text of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions: http://billofrightsinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/VirginiaKentuckyResolutions.pdf