In 1798, the legislatures of Virginia and Kentucky approved resolutions that affirmed the states’ right to resist federal encroachments on their powers. If the federal government has the exclusive right to judge the extent of its own powers, warned the resolutions’ authors (James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, respectively), it will continue to grow – regardless of elections, the separation of powers, and other much-touted limits on government power. The Virginia Resolutions spoke of the states’ right to “interpose” between the federal government and the people of the state; the Kentucky Resolutions (in a 1799 follow-up to the original resolutions) used the term “nullification” – the states, they said, could nullify unconstitutional federal laws.
These ideas became known as the “Principles of ’98.” Their subsequent impact on American history, according to the standard narrative, was pretty much confined to South Carolina’s nullification of the tariffs of 1828 and 1832. That is demonstrably false, as I shall show below. But it isn’t just that these ideas are neglected in the usual telling; as I discovered not long ago, these principles are positively despised by neoconservatives like Max Boot and the leftists at the New York Times (or do I repeat myself?). Neither one, in their reviews of The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History, so much as mentioned Jefferson’s name in connection with the Principles of ’98. It is hard to view such an omission as anything but deliberate. To mention Jefferson’s name is to lend legitimacy to ideas that nationalists of left and right alike detest, so they simply leave him out of the picture.
Jefferson once wrote, “When all government, domestic and foreign, in little as in great things, shall be drawn to Washington as the center of all power, it will render powerless the checks provided of one government on another, and will become as venal and oppressive as the government from which we separated.” To resist this centralizing trend, the sage of Monticello was convinced, the states needed some kind of corporate defense mechanism.
Our betters have already told us that the only reason anyone might wish to vindicate the cause of states’ rights is for the purpose of defending slavery or upholding some lesser form of local oppression. What follows is the tip of the iceberg of the history that, by what I shall assume is an entirely well-meaning and innocent oversight, these grea