Few documents in American history have had as tremendous an impact as the two penned by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in 1798. The historical significance of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions lies primarily in how they were later used and twisted to further the goals of hardline states’ rights politicians.
Written following the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts, the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions argued the laws were unconstitutional and petitioned the other states to join together and not enforce them.
Throughout American history the resolutions are primarily known for their introduction of the doctrine of nullification. To nullify would be for a state to invalidate a federal law within its borders.
Though the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions did not resonate widely throughout the states, their passage had great significance in many other ways, including setting a grave precedent for use in the future.
Summary of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions
The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions can be summarized by the following main points:
- Declared the Alien and Sedition Acts to be unconstitutional
- State legislatures had the power to determine the validity of federal laws
- The proper remedy to an unconstitutional federal law is nullification, or interposition
- Petitioned the other states to join in action against the federal government
By 1798 the Democratic-Republicans were floundering. Losers in the election of 1796 to the Federalists and John Adams, their standing across the nation was in jeopardy.
Their calls for closer relations with France backfired with the disastrous XYZ Affair, and the nation responded by giving the Federalists their widest majority ever in the Congressional election in 1798.
Upon the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, Thomas Jefferson foresaw a scenario where the Federalist party could guarantee itself a permanent rule through the silencing of its opposition.1
Backs against the wall, the future Jeffersonian Democrats resolved to make a stand, some of which believed might earn them the label of “traitors.” Their plan was to encourage sympathetic state legislatures to pass resolutions aiming to define republican constitutional principles in defiance of the federal government.
While Thomas Jefferson believed those states should be Virginia and North Carolina, he found more resolve in Kentucky to pass the resolutions.
Jefferson and his close political ally James Madison authored the resolutions in secret and found allies in the Kentucky and Virginia state legislatures to pass the resolutions in 1798.
The declaration that states could nullify federal law was an inflammatory statement at the time and caused a major rift among the Union. While the resolutions petitioned the other states to join in opposition, only about half the states were sympathetic, largely along section lines, though only two took similar action.2
While no major conflict arose from the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions in 1798, their principles were later used to support nullification of federal laws leading to further Constitutional crises.
The Significance of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions
The significance of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions lies in the fact that they opposed the Alien and Sedition Acts, promoted states’ rights over federal powers, helped organize Democratic-Repbulicans, and eventually led to the Nullification Crisis.
While in the short term the resolutions helped the authors achieve their primary goal of defeating the Federalists and leading the nation, in the long term they helped plant the seeds for further division and eventual Civil War.
Opposed the Alien and Sedition Acts
Perhaps most importantly, the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions were written in opposition to the Aliens and Sedition Acts.
Then-Vice President Thomas Jefferson truly believed that the Federalist-dominated Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts in order to silence opposition and ensure their political dominance.
Jefferson even thought he might be personally targeted by the Sedition Act as it specifically did not limit criticism of the Vice President. Congress also easily could have applied the Alien Friends Act against prominent Democratic-Republicans such as the Geneva-born Albert Gallatin.1
The paranoia ran deep: Jefferson even instructed James Madison to ensure all his letters had unbroken seals to ensure no tampering by Federalists in the government. At the end of the day, Jefferson and Madison believed the Alien and Sedition Acts were an attempt to see just how lenient the American populace would be in the face of an unjust law.1
This perceived injustice led directly to their authoring of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions in 1798.
However, while the resolutions are commonly referred to as a defense against the violations of civil liberties brought on by the Alien and Sedition Acts, the acts were merely the occasion of the resolutions, not the cause.
The true cause of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions was to provide a document of stated Democratic-Republican principles in opposition to the vision proposed by Federalists.3
Every defense of personal liberties in the resolutions only did so in the framework that the power to regulate personal liberties such as freedom of speech belonged with the states. It could not be any other way without exposing deep hypocrisies.
At the time Virginia had its own state laws limiting freedom of speech—as did many other states—and also had its own Alien Friends Act, which was nearly indistinguishable from the federal version.3
While the resolutions clearly opposed the Alien and Sedition Acts, they did not do so in defense of civil liberties, but rather in defense of states’ rights vs federal powers.
Promoted States’ Rights Over Federal Powers
The true intentions of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions are expressly shown in the following quotes taken from the Virginia Resolution in 1799:
“The sedition act is the offspring of these tremendous pretentions, which inflict a death-wound on the sovereignty of the states.”3
As shown, Madison and Jefferson argued against the sedition act only on the basis that these powers rested with the states. Both authors argued for a narrow interpretation of the Constitution, particularly the Tenth Amendment whereby:
“The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
Since the federal government overstepped its authority, the resolutions deemed the Alien and Sedition Acts to be unconstitutional. The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions went a step further outlining a proposed solution for when Congress passed an unconstitutional law: nullification, or interposition. From the Kentucky Resolutions of 1799:
“That the several states who formed that instrument, 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 color of that instrument, is the rightful remedy”
Nullification is essentially the same idea as interposition. James Madison purposely used the vague term “interposition,” rather than nullification, so as to not firmly commit to the idea that states could nullify any laws they opposed.
In effect, the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions argued that states should be the final arbiters of the Constitution’s intent. In the modern day, the federal judiciary has that role, but the concept of judicial review was not established until 1803 following the significant Marbury v. Madison case.
The inflammatory declarations found sympathy among southern states, though northern ones nearly unanimously rejected them.2
Helped Organize Democratic-Republicans
One of the most significant aspects of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions was how they ultimately helped to organize Democratic-Republicans and lead them to victory in the election of 1800.
Heading into 1798 Democratic Republicans and those who favored states’ rights had dealt with nearly a decade of political defeats. They failed to prevent the passage of Alexander Hamilton’s financial plan and were forced to work in the minority underneath the thumb of Federalists George Washington and John Adams.
Seemingly nothing could swing national opinion towards Jeffersonian idealism. Even large events such as the Whiskey Rebellion and Jay’s Treaty failed to make much of a difference.
Seizing an opportunity following the public backlash from the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts, Jefferson and Madison used the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions as a statement of Republican principles to spread around the nation.
Though a lackluster national response disappointed Republican leaders, many sympathic states did agree to portions of the resolutions. Tennessee and Georgia even went so far as to pass their own resolutions supporting the repeal of the Alien and Sedition Acts.2
The positive-to-neutral response in roughly half of the states suggests that the nation was more perceptive to Republican ideals than the results of 1798 midterm elections indicated.
Republicans seized on the opportunity to spread outrage over the Alien and Sedition Acts and organize behind a common set of ideals outlined in the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions. These actions are reminiscent of modern-day political parties, though they were very much in their infancy at this time.
Superior organization was a key component in Thomas Jefferson’s eventual victory in the election of 1800.
Led to the Nullification Crisis
The significance and legacy of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions is often intertwined with how their principles were later used to further divide the nation.
Just a decade later, the New England states that outright rejected the resolutions in 1798 argued for their merits stating that Jefferson’s Embargo Act of 1807 was unconstitutional. The New England states did not pass any resolutions and fought by challenging the law in court instead.
During the Hartford Convention of 1814 New England delegates also utilized the resolutions’ principles to issue a statement proposing constitutional amendments.
In the most well-known incident, South Carolina specifically cited the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions in its attempt to nullify the federal law known as the Tariff of Abominations in 1832. Now known as the Nullification Crisis, the events nearly brought the nation to a civil war.
South Carolina’s legislators, including the influential John C. Calhoun, pointed towards Madison’s writings as justification for their actions and beliefs in the so-called “Principles of ‘98.”
Madison himself was alive at the time, and he vigorously denounced South Carolina’s actions. He argued that South Carolina warped the intent of the resolutions to serve its own purposes, despite the state’s legislators sometimes quoting him by the word.4
No individual state had the right to nullify a federal law, only a collection of states could do so. Madison’s reversal largely stemmed from a change in the state of the Union.
Over the years his positions on various issues changed, often abruptly, depending on how he foresaw the state of the Union. What was necessary at one time may no longer be required at a later date.4
Unfortunately, Jefferson and Madison did not have the foresight to see how their rash declarations could be used to further divide the Union in the future.
To recap, the ultimate significance of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions results from how they:
- Opposed the Alien and Sedition Acts
- Promoted states’ rights over federal powers
- Helped organize Democratic-Republicans
- Led to the Nullification Crisis
While the arguments of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions gained traction across the nation, they further highlighted and magnified the stark sectional divide of the United States. Already in these early years of the nation, the Union was tenuous at best.
Southern states lived in constant fear of northern domination through a centralized government that could disrupt their way of life. The only way to combat this was through a strict interpretation of the Constitution to give individual states the power to maintain their institutions, particularly that of slavery.
This divide would only grow over the subsequent decades, ultimately leading to the devastating Civil War in the 1860s.
To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.
1) K. R. Constantine Gutzman. “The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions Reconsidered: ‘An Appeal to the Real Laws of Our Country.’” The Journal of Southern History, vol. 66, no. 3, 2000, pp. 473–96. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/2587865.
2) BIRD, WENDELL. “Reassessing Responses to the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions: New Evidence from the Tennessee and Georgia Resolutions and from Other States.” Journal of the Early Republic, vol. 35, no. 4, 2015, pp. 519–51. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24768867.
3) Berns, Walter. “Freedom of the Press and the Alien and Sedition Laws: A Reappraisal.” The Supreme Court Review, vol. 1970, 1970, pp. 109–59. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3108724.
4) Gutzman, Kevin R. “A Troublesome Legacy: James Madison and ‘The Principles of ’98.’” Journal of the Early Republic, vol. 15, no. 4, 1995, pp. 569–89. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/3124014.