The New International Encyclopædia/Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions
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Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions
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VIRGINIA AND KENTUCKY RESOLUTIONS. Two series of resolutions adopted in 1798 and 1799 by the Legislatures of Kentucky and Virginia in protest against legislation by Congress and in support of the strict constructionist view of the Constitution. The resolutions were called forth by the steady extension of the powers of the Federal Government at the expense of the States as a result of the liberal interpretation which the Federalist authorities were placing upon the Constitution, and in particular by the enactment of the Alien and Sedition Acts (q.v.) in 1798. The Kentucky Resolutions were nine in number, were drafted by Thomas Jefferson, then Vice-President, and were adopted by the Legislature in November, 1798. They affirmed that the Union was a compact; that whenever the Federal Government assumed undelegated powers its acts were unauthoritative, void, and of no force; that the Government was not the exclusive or final judge of the extent of the powers delegated to itself, since its discretion and not the Constitution would then be the measure of its powers; but that, as in all other cases of compact among parties having no common judge, each party had an equal right to judge for itself as well of infractions as of the mode and measure of redress. The resolutions then formally denied the power of Congress to pass the Alien and Sedition Acts, and declared that these acts were void and of no force. In the following year the Kentucky Legislature further resolved that “the several States, being sovereign and independent, have the unquestionable right to judge of the infractions of the Constitution; and that a nullification by those sovereignties of all unauthorized acts done under color of that instrument is the rightful remedy.”
The Virginia Resolutions, passed in December, 1798, were eight in number, were drafted by Madison, and were much milder in tone. They described the Union, however, as a compact, and declared that in ease of a deliberate, palpable, and dangerous exercise of powers not granted by the said compact, the States, as parties thereto, had the right, and were in duty bound, to interpose for arresting the progress of the evil and for maintaining the rights and liberties appertaining to them. The resolutions of the two States were transmitted to the executives of the other States to be laid before their respective Legislatures. Responses were made by Delaware, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Vermont, but none of them were sympathetic, that of Massachusetts expressly denying the right of the State Legislature “to judge of the acts and measures of the Federal Government.” The replies of the various States were referred to a committee of the Virginia Legislature of which Madison was chairman, and on January 7, 1800, this committee made an elaborate report. The texts of the resolutions may be found in Macdonald, Select Documents of United States History, 1776-1861 (New York, 1898); Jefferson's draft of the Kentucky Resolutions may be found in Jefferson's Works, vol. ix. (ed. 1856); and the answers of the State Legislatures and the text of Madison's report of 1800 are given in Elliot's Debates, vol. iv. (ed. 1836). Consult: Warfield, Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 (New York, 1887); Von Holst, Constitutional History of the United States, vol. i. (Chicago; new ed. 1899).