Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions
ARTICLE from the Encyclopædia Britannica


Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, (1798 and 1799), in U.S. history, measures passed by the legislatures of Virginia and Kentucky as a protest against the Federalist Alien and Sedition Acts. The resolutions were written by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson (then vice president in the administration of John Adams), but the role of those statesmen remained unknown to the public for almost 25 years. Generally, the resolutions argued that because the federal government was the outcome of a compact between the states, all powers not specifically granted to the central authority were retained by the individual states or by the people. For this reason, they maintained that the states had the power to pass upon the constitutionality of federal legislation.

The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions were primarily protests against the limitations on civil liberties contained in the Alien and Sedition Acts rather than expressions of full-blown constitutional theory. Later references to the resolutions as authority for the theories of nullification and secession were inconsistent with the limited goals sought by Jefferson and Madison in drafting their protests.


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The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 and 1799 raised the question of states rights' and nullification. They were drafted in response to the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 but were concerned with a larger and more deep-rooted problem. How was power to be divided between the federal government and the states, and who was to settle disputes between the two?

The first Kentucky Resolution, passed by the state legislature on November 16, 1798, stated that when the federal government exercised power not specifically delegated to it by the Constitution, each state could judge the validity of that action for itself. The Virginia Resolution of December 24, 1798, claimed that the states "have the right and are in duty bound to interpose for arresting the progress of the evil." Several northern states objected that the judiciary, not the states, should be the arbiter of constitutionality. The Kentucky legislature passed a second Resolution on November 22, 1799, arguing that a single state had the power to nullify a federal action it deemed unconstitutional.

Unknown to contemporaries, the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions were drafted, respectively, by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. The doctrines they enunciated were later cited by southern slaveholders in support of their right to secede from the Union. Yet it would be a mistake to conclude that either Jefferson or Madison truly wanted to dismantle the Union. The Resolutions are best understood in the context of the fierce political battles between Federalists and Jeffersonians in the 1790s and the prevailing theory of divided sovereignty. When John C. Calhoun evoked the Resolutions in the 1820s to support his own doctrine of nullification, he was solidly opposed by James Madison.


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