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).

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
Though the doctrines of the Kentucky and Virginia resolutions are most often thought of as the staple of southern states' rights advocates, many states of both the North and the South have at some time either expressly approved the principles of the resolutions or acted in their spirit.
The principles of the Kentucky and Virginia resolutions were his guiding light as his state faced a belligerent President Andrew Jackson.
Why would several of those states have responded that the Supreme Court was the final arbiter of constitutional questions if the Kentucky and Virginia resolutions were viewed as mere complaints?
It is noteworthy that the Constitution did not expressly reserve to the states or their legislatures the authority to act on behalf of the states' residents by the forms of speech, petitioning, and influence that the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions exemplify.
A full examination of these issues is beyond the scope of this essay.(67) But some treatment of them is necessary to evaluate the contemporary relevance of the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions and Madison's defense of the latter.
Jefferson, Madison, and the other authors of the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions rejected such a skeptical conception of constitutional meaning.
The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions support an analogous conception of relationships between federal and state interpretive powers.
The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions based arguments for state autonomy, including diffused interpretive powers, on a premise that the Constitution was a "compact" among sovereign states.
Thus there was substantial overlap among Wilson's arguments and those presented in the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions. Each depended on an assumption that the Constitution delegated limited powers to institutions of federal government.
Accordingly, constitutional theory and practice should be expanded to embrace the core principles of state interpretive autonomy that are common to the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions. Although the states acting separately may pose serious threats to principles of American constitutionalism, cutting off the states' contributions to interpretive dialogue would threaten more directly the Constitution itself.

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