Kentucky Resolutions

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Kentucky Resolutions

A set of proposals formulated by Thomas Jefferson and approved by the state legislature of Kentucky during 1798 and 1799 in opposition to the enactment of the Alien and Sedition Acts (1 Stat. 566, 570, 577, 596) by Congress.

The Kentucky Resolutions attacked the validity of the Alien and Sedition Acts, the enactment of which were a reaction to the turbulent political climate of France during the late 1700s following the French Revolution. The acts imposed strict residency requirements in order to attain U.S. citizenship, empowered the president to deport or incarcerate Aliens who were considered "dangerous," and permitted the criminal prosecution of persons who made critical or seditious speeches or writings against the government. The resolutions advocated a strict constructionist view of the federal government which treated the Constitution as an agreement reached among the states as to the particular powers to be exercised by the central government. The federal government could not act in any way unless specifically authorized to do so in the Constitution. The enactment of the Alien and Sedition Acts was considered to be beyond the powers of Congress and, therefore, the acts were void. The resolutions represented the exercise of the right of the state of Kentucky to declare the acts void through nullification (the declaration that such laws were not legally enforceable).

A comparable series of proposals, the Virginia Resolutions, drawn by James Madison, and approved by the Virginia legislature in 1798, treated the Alien and Sedition Acts in a similar fashion.

Both the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions did not meet with any real success when presented to other states for adoption. They were, however, significant in American Legal History because they embodied the clash between two competing principles of government—states' rights versus Federalism.

Further readings

Costa, Greg. 1999. "John Marshall, the Sedition Act, and Free Speech in the Early Republic." Texas Law Review 77 (March).

Watkins, William J., Jr. 1999. "The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions: Guideposts of Limited Government." Independent Review 3 (winter).


Virginia and Kentucky Resolves; "Virginia and Kentucky Resolves" (Appendix, Primary Document).

References in periodicals archive ?
In his resolution (there were two Kentucky Resolutions, but only one in the Old Dominion), Madison echoed Jefferson's reasoning, asserting that the states were justified (in fact, required) in serving as arbiters of constitutionality.
The neglected Tenth Amendment is explained, as are the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of Madison and Jefferson.
Constantine Gutzman, "The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions Reconsidered: 'An Appeal to the Real Laws of Our Country,'" The Journal of Southern History 66 (2000), 473-96.
In a little-known episode just before the Sedition Act crisis, Jefferson, responding to the actions of the grand jury of the federal circuit court in Richmond, followed Hamilton's wisdom of Federalist 28 and laid much of the foundation on the which the Kentucky resolution would be built.
Working in complete secrecy, Jefferson drafted the Kentucky resolution of 1798 between 21 July and 26 October 1798.
The Kentucky resolution continued with the axiom that "free government is founded in jealousy and not in confidence," because confidence "is every where the parent of despotism" (Virginia Commission 1964, 150).
The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions were radical when written: They dealt with foundational issues of American constitutionalism and called into question opposing conceptions of constitutional meaning and authority.
As approved, the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 took a more modest position than Jefferson's draft on the state legislature's powers of protest.
In 1798, Jefferson and James Madison prepared the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions in reply to the Federalists ' Alien and Sedition Acts, which were directed against propagandists for the French Revolution and the Democratic - Republican Party.
He did this with his Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 and 1799:
Thomas Jefferson asserted the power of states to nullify unconstitutional federal laws based on their status as parties to the constitutional compact of 1787-88, in the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 and 1799.
The Virginia Resolutions, with Jefferson's Kentucky Resolutions, were a straightforward assertion of states' rights and individual rights under the Constitution and a remonstrance against federal encroachment of powers not explicitly enumerated in the Constitution.

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