Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions

Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, in U.S. history, resolutions passed in opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts, which were enacted by the Federalists in 1798. The Jeffersonian Republicans first replied in the Kentucky Resolutions, adopted by the Kentucky legislature in Nov., 1798. Written by Thomas Jefferson himself, they were a severe attack on the Federalists' broad interpretation of the Constitution, which would have extended the powers of the national government over the states. The resolutions declared that the Constitution merely established a compact between the states and that the federal government had no right to exercise powers not specifically delegated to it under the terms of the compact; should the federal government assume such powers, its acts under them would be unauthoritative and therefore void. It was the right of the states and not the federal government to decide as to the constitutionality of such acts. A further resolution, adopted in Feb., 1799, provided a means by which the states could enforce their decisions by formal nullification of the objectionable laws. A similar set of resolutions was adopted in Virginia in Dec., 1798, but these Virginia Resolutions, written by James Madison, were a somewhat milder expression of the strict construction of the Constitution and the compact theory of the Union. The resolutions were submitted to the other states for approval with no real result; their chief importance lies in the fact that they were later considered to be the first notable statements of the states' rights theory of government, a theory that opened the way for the nullification controversy and ultimately for secession.

See E. D. Warfield, The Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 (1887, repr. 1969); J. C. Miller, Crisis in Freedom (1951, repr. 1964).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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