Kentucky Virginia Resolution Essay, Research Paper
The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions
The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions were authored in secret by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in response to the repressive Alien and Sedition Acts passed in 1798. In the opinion of Jefferson and Madison, the Acts were unjust. They also represented a major victory for the Federalists. By writing the Resolutions, Jefferson and Madison spearheaded the protests of those against the Alien and Sedition Acts and those in support of stronger states rights. Although the Resolutions were successful in the two originating states, they did not have much success in the other states. Still, the new ideas presented in the Resolutions were almost revolutionary. Although the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 and 1799 were not very successful, they were important because they provided necessary arguments for the supporters of greater states rights against the proponents of a stronger central government.
The Alien and Sedition Acts played major roles in the coming about of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions. Passed in early 1798, the Acts laid down a number of harsh restrictions on foreigners. The Alien Act stretched the minimum years for eligibility for naturalization from five years to fourteen years. It also gave the President the power to expel any alien from the country. The Sedition Act was even harsher; it gave the government the right to arrest anyone accused of seditious activities. The Sedition Act thus cracked down on many Jeffersonian newspapers which criticized the government. Of course, Jefferson criticized these Acts; he even called them worthy of the 8th and 9th century (2 / p.174). With these laws the Federalists were thought to be stifling the power of the Jeffersonians.
Through the Alien and Sedition Acts, those in support of a stronger federal government achieved a major victory. The Acts gave new powers which were not dictated in the Constitution to both the executive and legislative branches. The Federalists were able to pass these acts with their logic based upon loose translations of the Constitution, especially the elastic clause. In peacetime, these Acts would not have had a chance in being passed, but the undeclared war with France had riled up Congress enough to accept these loose translations.
The opponents of the Alien and Sedition Acts were led by Jefferson and Madison; in response to the Acts the Republicans launched an attack on what they believed were breaches of the Constitution. The attack on the Alien and Sedition Acts was based upon the strict construction theory of the Republicans. To them, the government could not be given powers by implication; the jurisdiction of the federal government was plainly stated in the Constitution, and it had to be followed (4 / p. 162). Using this theory, Jefferson and Madison declared the Alien Act to be unconstitutional on two counts. The first count was the expansion of the powers of the executive branch, and the second was the extension of the authority of the federal government over aliens (4 / p. 163). Jefferson and Madison believed that these breaches of the Constitution attacked the powers of the individual states. The enlarging of the executive branch and the legislative branch shrank the states powers by stripping from each state the ability to offer protection to its people. The Republicans thus decried the Alien Act based on these two counts. The next target was the Sedition Act. Jefferson was especially angry at the Sedition Act; it denied the one principle which Jefferson held most sacred: knowledge and freedom of inquiry (2 / p.180). Without these two freedoms, the federal government could easily become tyrannical. The Sedition Act repressed freedom of speech and press; these two freedoms were obviously essential to the survival of inquiry and criticism. Jefferson with Madison thus set out soon after the passing of the Alien and Sedition Acts to pen the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions.
As said before, Jefferson and Madison wrote the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions as rebuffs to the Alien and Sedition Acts. The Resolutions stated several new theories in the relationship between the federal government and the states. The first and most important was the compact theory. In Jefferson and Madison s interpretation, the Constitution was nothing more than a compact between sovereign states which gave explicitly defined powers to the central government and retained all other powers (1 / p. 3). Here, Jefferson and Madison took the strict construction theory of the Republicans and defined it even further. Thus the Resolutions stated that the states had all residual powers and not the federal government. The second theory in the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions was that the states were the true judges of a law s constitutionality and not the legislative or judicial branches of the federal government (4 / p. 170). If the legislative branch was the final judge of whether a law was constitutional or not, then the checks and balances of the branch would not be in place. Thus, since the compact theory declared that the states had created the government, they would also be in charge of judging a federal law s constitutionality. The third and final theory was put forth only in Jefferson s Kentucky Resolution; it was the theory of nullification. This theory stated that the states were not only the legitimate judges and interpreters of the Constitution but also the executors of their judgements with regard to the constitutionality of federal laws (4 / p. 170). In other words, any federal law could be the target of nullification by a state. Together, these three theories which made up the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions provided for very strong arguments against the Alien and Sedition Acts. The Resolutions were to be the ammunition that was needed in the siege on the Adams administration.
The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions were quickly adopted in the two originating states. The quick legislation was a victory to the Republicans, for now they had two states on their side clamoring for the abolition of the Alien and Sedition Acts. The Kentucky Resolution was adopted by the Kentucky House of Representatives on November 10, 1798 and passed by the State Senate on the 13th of the same month; the Virginia Resolution was passed in the State Senate on December 24, 1798 (1 / p. 5). The quickness in which the Resolutions were passed of course facilitated the spreading the word about them.
Although the Resolutions did enjoy successes in Kentucky and Virginia, they did not fare so well in the other states. Ten of the fourteen states voiced opposition to the Resolutions (5 / p. 115). This somewhat unexpected opposition was bad news for Jefferson and Madison; their efforts in attacking the repressive actions of the Adams administration had received a strong counterattack. Some of the states even went as far as praising the Alien and Sedition Acts as just and necessary (4 / p. 173-174). Such staunch defenses of the constitutionality of acts of Congress came mainly from the New England states. The series of rejections definitely hampered the Republicans campaign for the repeal of the Alien and Sedition Acts.
Even though the Resolutions were not accepted and even denounced by the other states, the fact that two states accepted them was enough ammunition in the fight against the Federalists. With the Resolutions accusations that the Alien and Sedition Acts denied civil liberties, President Adams s political future was darkened. With these accusations, public opinion on the Alien and Sedition Acts as well as the Adams administration changed (3 / p. 77). The Resolutions proved their usefulness later on as they indirectly helped Jefferson win the Presidency in the campaign of 1800. Thus the Resolutions and the ensuing shift in public opinion proved later on to be the death of Adams s political career.
In conclusion, the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions were important documents in their time. These works of Jefferson and Madison communicated the opposition against Alien and Sedition Act to the Federalists and the public. Although they did not garner much support with the other states, the Resolutions theories were the first to pit state rights and powers against those of the federal government. The Resolutions also had the effect of counterbalancing the restrictive policies of the Adams administration. The Resolutions began the transition from the Federalist government to the Republic government. In other words, the Resolutions were a sort of foreshadowing of the policies of the Jefferson administration which were in many aspects the opposite to those of the Adams administration. In the end, the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions ended up having started the long battle of state rights against the central government s rights.