Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions Reconsidered: "An Appeal to the Real Laws of Our Country"

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions Reconsidered: "An Appeal to the Real Laws of Our Country"

Article excerpt

IN 1798, AFTER A DECADE OF POLITICAL DEFEATS, VIRGINIA REPUBLICANS faced the gravest scenario contemplated in their ideology: the federal government, no longer headed by a Virginian Cincinnatus who had proven himself willing to relinquish power, stood on a war footing. Despite what Republicans understood as the nation's moral obligation, the Federalists finally had taken sides in the European wars in opposition to republican France. This decision had led them also to expand the American army and augment the American navy. In addition, as Republican thought predicted. Federalists had taken drastic measures aimed at tamping down domestic dissent.

With the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts, it seemed that the Federalist majority in Congress might guarantee itself a permanent domination. The Sedition Act prohibited all criticism of "the government of the United States, or either house of the Congress ... or the President" (but did not

specifically exempt from criticism the vice president--who, of course, was Thomas Jefferson), while the Alien Friends Act subjected friendly foreigners--including Representative Albert Gallatin, a leading Republican--to the government's arbitrary control. President John Adams, Jefferson's onetime revolutionary colleague, seemed a happy convert to the cause of "monarchism." Jefferson, recognized leader of the Republican opposition, decided to forgo candid expression of his sentiments even in letters to bosom friends lest Federalist postmasters, whom he suspected of rifling through his mail, expose him to prosecution.

At the end of their collective rope (or at least imagining a gallows in the intermediate future) the Republican high command lit upon a strategy: it would have the Virginia General Assembly and the legislature of a sympathetic state (Jefferson thought it should be North Carolina's, but the influence of members of the Nicholas family--which included prominent Kentucky and Virginia Republicans--in Kentucky meant that its legislature served the purpose in the end) adopt a statement of Republican constitutional principles. Americans at large would thus be offered an alternative political standard to which they could repair, and the Federalist government would receive a tacit dare to initiate sedition prosecutions against an unsympathetic state legislature.(1)

The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 should not be understood as the invention of distraught minds faced with extraordinary circumstances. Although the situation faced by Virginia Republican leaders at the end of the 1790s was urgent, the twin enunciations of their constitutional position adopted by the Virginia and Kentucky legislatures corresponded closely to the explication of the Constitution offered by Federalists in the Richmond Ratification Convention of 1788. By the time matters came to a head in 1798, Virginians had been insisting on holding the Federalists to their vows of 1788 for a full decade.

From almost the minute they were promulgated, the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 came to be seen as the touchstone of Virginia's constitutionalism. When the identities of their main authors, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, became known more than a decade after the fact, the resolutions took on additional luster, and sectionalist and particularist southerners based their arguments on them up to 1861 and after.(2)

The standard accounts of the events of 1798 have Jefferson and Madison teaming to concoct a constitutional doctrine that might be useful in defense of civil liberties. According to these accounts, the two eminent Virginians directed their salvo against what was seemingly an endless string of Federalist victories in federal politics--what Jefferson called "the reign of witches"--that finally drove many Republicans to desperation.(3)

Examined solely from the perspective of Virginia, however, that standard account is simply mistaken. …

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