Americapedia

Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions (1798)

These resolutions argued that the federal government had no authority to exercise power not specifically delegated to it in the Constitution. They were passed by the legislatures of Kentucky and Virginia in response to the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 and were authored by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, respectively.

In an analysis of the principle of federalism, the resolutions made the case that the states had the power to nullify unconstitutional federal laws. The Kentucky Resolution declared in part, “[T]he several states who formed that instrument [the Constitution], being sovereign and independent, have the unquestionable right to judge of its infraction; and that a nullification, by those [states], of all unauthorized acts….is the rightful remedy.”

The Virginia Resolution said that by enacting the Alien and Sedition Acts, Congress was exercising “a power not delegated by the constitution, but on the contrary, expressly and positively forbidden by one of the amendments thereto; a power, which more than any other, ought to produce universal alarm, because it is levelled against that right of freely examining public characters and measures, and of free communication among the people thereon, which has ever been justly deemed, the only effectual guardian of every other right.”

The ideas in the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions became a precursor to John C. Calhoun’s arguments about the power of states to nullify federal laws. However, during the 1830s nullification controversy, Madison rejected the legitimacy of nullification, and maintained that it was not part of the Virginia position in 1798.