Thomas Jefferson: A Biography

By Nathan Schachner | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER 43 Kentucky Resolutions

SOME time in September, 1798, ensconced in his eyrie ar Monticello, Jefferson commenced work on a series of resolutions which he intended to have submitted to a sympathetic stare legislature for consideration and passage. He worked in the strictest secrecy and enveloped the entire proceedings in such an extraordinary veil of mystery that the exact derails have furnished a fruitful field for historical dispute down to the present day.1

For the secrecy and mystery there was good and sufficient reason. Jefferson was Vice-President of the United States; the resolutions were an appeal from the authority of the Federal Government to the authority of the States. They proclaimed boldly the right and duty of the States to declare measures of the national government unconstitutional and void; and hinted even ar the last resort of secession from that government. At any time, such a pronouncement would have created an immense furore; in the current state of exacerbation and superheated tempers, it might welt have been considered as treason; and particularly so when penned by the second in command in the nation.

Therefore Jefferson rook no one into his confidence except for one man. Strangely enough, that man was not Madison, his bosom friend and stoutest political ally. At least nor in the beginning.2 Perhaps he feared that, with the connection between them so well known to the outer world, some hint of what impended might filter through, and the origin of the explosive resolutions be eventually traced. The man to whom he entrusted the perilous secret was Wilson Cary Nicholas of Virginia, an old friend and enthusiastic Republican, bur nor as intimately associated in the public rain d with Jefferson as Madison would have been, or Monroe.

What made Nicholas particularly well equipped to act as Jefferson's intermediary and emissary was the fact that his private and business affairs took him out of Virginia into the neighboring states, and his journeyings and meetings with the political leaders of those states would not occasion undue comment or be connected with Jefferson.

The Resolutions, as Jefferson shaped them into final form, expounded a theory of the federal compact which made the several States the final arbiters of Constitutional construction and the sole guardians of their own absolute powers against the delegated powers of the national government. The Alien and Sedition Acts were the springboard for this assertion of powers; hut the Resolutions went far beyond the particular occasion to enunciate


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