Jefferson and Nullification
by Clyde Wilson
“Resolved, That the several States composing the United States of America, are not united on the principle of unlimited submission to their General Government . . . . and that whensoever the General Government assumes undelegated powers, its acts are unauthoritative, void, and of no force. . . . that the government created by this compact [the Constitution for the United States] was not made the exclusive or final judge of the extent of the powers delegated to itself; since that would have made its discretion, and not the Constitution, the measure of its powers; . . . . that this would be to surrender the form of government we have chosen, and live under one deriving its powers from its own will, and not from our authority; . . . and that the co-States, recurring to their natural right in cases not made federal, will concur in declaring these acts void, and of no force, and will each take measures of its own for providing that neither these acts, nor any others of the General Government not plainly and intentionally authorised by the Constitution, shall be exercised within their respective territories.”
So wrote Thomas Jefferson, Vice President of the United States, in a document drafted at the request of members of the Kentucky legislature in 1798. Kentucky passed Jefferson’s paper and broadcast it to the world as the definitive opinion and stand of the sovereign people of the State. The language drafted by James Madison for similar documents adopted by the Virginia legislature in 1799 and 1800 was similarly unequivoical in its constitutional position and forceful in expression.
The people, acting through their natural polities, the States, had created and given authority to the Constitution of the United States. The Constitution conferred powers on a general government to handle certain specified matters that were common to the “general welfare” of all the States. That government was an agent. It could not be the judge of its own powers. To allow it to be so would mean nothing less than a government of unlimited power, a tyranny. The partners to the Constitution, the sovereign peoples of the States, were the final judges of what they had intended the Constitution to mean. When the general government exceeded its power it was the right and duty of the State to interpose its authority and defend its people from federal acts of tyranny — yes, to render a federal law inoperative in the State’s jurisdiction…
The scholars of the rising leftist Establishment who took over American history writing beginning in the 1930s invented a self-flattering fable to render the Kentucky and Virginia documents themselves null and void. Jefferson and Madison, they said, really did not care about States’ rights. They were merely anticipating the great tradition of the American Civil Liberties Union in opposing the Alien and Sedition Acts. Their concern was to defend the freedom of speech of the non-conformist radicals of their time.