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Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, 1798–1799

Use this primary source text to explore key historical events.

Suggested Sequencing


On February 21, 1797, Secretary of State Timothy Pickering informed Congress that France had seized more than three hundred U.S. merchant ships in the past eleven months. France and Great Britain were at war, but the United States remained neutral. Affronted by this attack on U.S. neutrality, President John Adams asked Congress for preparations for war, leading to an undeclared “quasi-war.” In 1798, the Federalists in Congress passed and Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts. The Alien Act increased the amount of time it took to become a naturalized citizen and authorized the president to deport from the United States aliens deemed a threat to national security. The Sedition Act made it a crime to criticize the U.S. government, the president, or the Congress. The government eventually prosecuted about a dozen Jeffersonian-Republican newspaper editors under the Sedition Act. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison led the opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts by writing resolutions adopted by the Kentucky and Virginia legislatures asserting the laws were unconstitutional.

Sourcing Questions

  1. Who were Thomas Jefferson and James Madison? To whom were they writing?
  2. What legislation were these resolutions written in response to?
  3. What do you think their goal was for writing these pieces?

Document A: The Virginia Resolutions

Vocabulary Text
unequivocably[unequivocally] (adj): leaves no doubt RESOLVED, That the General Assembly of Virginia, doth unequivocably express a firm resolution to maintain and defend the Constitution of the United States, and the Constitution of this State, against every aggression either foreign or domestic, and that they will support the government of the United States in all measures warranted by the former.
infraction(n): violation or infringement That this assembly most solemnly declares a warm attachment to the Union of the States, to maintain which it pledges all its powers; and that for this end, it is their duty to watch over and oppose every infraction of those principles which constitute the only basis of that Union, because a faithful observance of them, can alone secure it’s existence and the public happiness.
peremptorily(adv): no opportunity to deny

compact(n): agreement

That this Assembly doth explicitly and peremptorily declare, that it views the powers of the federal government, as resulting from the compact, to which the states are parties; as limited by the plain sense and intention of the instrument constituting the compact ;as no further valid that they are authorized by the grants enumerated in that compact; and that in case of a deliberate, palpable, and dangerous exercise of other powers, not granted by the said compact, the states who are parties thereto, have the right, and are in duty bound, to interpose for arresting the progress of the evil, and for maintaining within their respective limits, the authorities, rights and liberties appertaining to them.
construction(n): interpretation

enumeration(n): specific listing

That the General Assembly doth also express its deep regret, that a spirit has in sundry instances, been manifested by the federal government, to enlarge its powers by forced constructions of the constitutional charter which defines them; and that implications have appeared of a design to expound certain general phrases (which having been copied from the very limited grant of power, in the former articles of confederation were the less liable to be misconstrued) so as to destroy the meaning and effect, of the particular enumeration which necessarily explains and limits the general phrases; and so as to consolidate the states by degrees, into one sovereignty, the obvious tendency and inevitable consequence of which would be, to transform the present republican system of the United States, into an absolute, or at best a mixed monarchy.
palpable(adj): intense, tangible

delegate(v): to give or authorize

That the General Assembly doth particularly protest against the palpable and alarming infractions of the Constitution, in the two late cases of the “Alien and Sedition Acts” passed at the last session of Congress; the first of which exercises a power no where delegated to the federal government, and which by uniting legislative and judicial powers to those of executive, subverts the general principles of free government; as well as the particular organization, and positive provisions of the federal constitution; and the other of which acts, exercises in like manner, 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.
sophistry(n): false argument

precedent(n): guide for future action

That this state having by its Convention, which ratified the federal Constitution, expressly declared, that among other essential rights, “the Liberty of Conscience and of the Press cannot be cancelled, abridged, restrained, or modified by any authority of the United States,” and from its extreme anxiety to guard these rights from every possible attack of sophistry or ambition, having with other states, recommended an amendment for that purpose, which amendment was, in due time, annexed to the Constitution; it would mark a reproachable inconsistency, and criminal degeneracy, if an indifference were now shewn, to the most palpable violation of one of the Rights, thus declared and secured; and to the establishment of a precedent which may be fatal to the other.
perpetuate(v): to continue or preserve

fidelity(n): loyalty, allegiance

That the good people of this commonwealth, having ever felt, and continuing to feel, the most sincere affection for their brethren of the other states; the truest anxiety for establishing and perpetuating the union of all; and the most scrupulous fidelity to that constitution, which is the pledge of mutual friendship, and the instrument of mutual happiness; the General Assembly doth solemnly appeal to the like dispositions of the other states, in confidence that they will concur with this commonwealth in declaring, as it does hereby declare, that the acts aforesaid, are unconstitutional; and that the necessary and proper measures will be taken by each, for co-operating with this state, in maintaining the Authorities, Rights, and Liberties, referred to the States respectively, or to the people.
That the Governor be desired, to transmit a copy of the foregoing Resolutions to the executive authority of each of the other states, with a request that the same may be communicated to the Legislature thereof; and that a copy be furnished to each of the Senators and Representatives representing this state in the Congress of the United States.
Agreed to by the Senate, December 24, 1798.

Document B: The Kentucky Resolution of 1798

Vocabulary Text
residuary(n): remainder

redress(v): to remedy, to set right

I. Resolved, that the several states composing the United States of America, are not united on the principle of unlimited submission to their General Government; but that by compact under the style and title of a Constitution for the United States and of amendments thereto, they constituted a General Government for special purposes, delegated to that Government certain definite powers, reserving each state to itself, the residuary mass of right to their own self Government; and that whensoever the General Government assumes undelegated powers, its acts are unauthoritative, void, and of no force: That to this compact each state acceded as a state, and is an integral party, its co-states forming as to itself, the other party: That the Government created by this compact 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; but that as in all other cases of compact among parties having no common Judge, each party has an equal right to judge for itself, as well of infractions as of the mode and measure of redress. . . .
authorize(v): to allow or permit

consolidate(v): to combine or bring together

That this Commonwealth does therefore call on its Co-states for an expression of their sentiments on the acts concerning Aliens, and for the punishment of certain crimes herein before specified, plainly declaring whether these acts are or are not authorised by the Federal Compact? And it doubts not that their sense will be so announced as to prove their attachment unaltered to limited Government, whether general or particular, and that the rights and liberties of their Co-states will be exposed to no dangers by remaining embarked on a common bottom with their own: That they will concur with this Commonwealth in considering the said acts as so palpably against the Constitution as to amount to an undisguised declaration, that the Compact is not meant to be the measure of the powers of the General Government, but that it will proceed in the exercise over these states of all powers whatsoever: That they will view this as seizing the rights of the states and consolidating them in the hands of the General Government with a power assumed to bind the states (not merely in cases made federal) but in all cases whatsoever, by laws made, not with their consent, but by others against their consent: That this would be to surrender the form of Government we have chosen, and to 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 unite with this Commonwealth in requesting their repeal at the next session of Congress.

Document C: The Kentucky Resolution 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.

Comprehension Questions

  1. Why do the Virginia Resolutions begin with a declaration of allegiance to the Constitution and Union?
  2. What is the republican duty to prevent tyranny?
  3. What is the view of the national compact of government? Does it support the principle of federalism or states’ rights? Explain.
  4. What is interposition? Is interposition a constitutional doctrine?
  5. What fear is expressed here about the power of the national government?
  6. According to this document, what are the dangers of the Alien and Sedition Acts?
  7. What is the significance of the right of free speech?
  8. Why did the resolutions appeal to other states?
  9. Does this document assert a compact of states or the principle of federalism? Explain.
  10. What rights of the states are claimed when the national government exercises too much power?
  11. According to the document, how do the Alien and Sedition Acts violate basic tenets of government?
  12. What solution to the problem did Kentucky pursue? Was it a constitutional solution?
  13. What new remedy did the Kentucky legislature support in 1799? Explain whether it is constitutional?

Historical Reasoning Questions

  1. How did the Quasi-War with France contribute to growing partisanship between Federalists and Jeffersonian-Republicans in the 1790s?
  2. What was the main reason the Federalists supported the Alien and Sedition Acts? What was the view of President John Adams?
  3. How did Jeffersonian-Republicans view the constitutionality of the Alien and Sedition Acts?
  4. What were the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions? What were the roles played by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson?
  5. What were the proposed remedies of the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions to the Alien and Sedition Acts?
  6. How did the other states in the growing country respond to the call of the Kentucky and Virginia to support the resolutions in opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts?
  7. What were the short-term and long-term effects of the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions?

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