Most people know that Thomas Jefferson was the principal author of “The Declaration of Independence,” what some people consider the most important of all our founding documents.
Yet few of them have even heard of another document that I would say might be the second most important declaration he ever wrote: The Kentucky Resolutions of 1798.
He drafted them secretly while he was serving as vice president. It was written in response to the hated Alien and Sedition Acts which were passed under the John Adams administration during the “Quasi-War” with France.
The acts authorized the president to deport any resident alien considered dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States, to apprehend and deport resident aliens if their home countries were at war with the United States, and criminalized any speech which might defame Congress, the President, or bring either of them into contempt or disrepute. You could compare it to the Patriot Act, but really it was much worse. Either way, The Alien and Sedition Acts were probably Thomas Jefferson’s worst nightmare.
Some people are surprised to learn that in response to these acts, Jefferson did not first hold up the First Amendment in protest. Rather he started his opposition to the acts by invoking the Tenth Amendment, which states that:
“The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
Essentially, he argued that by passing and enforcing the Alien and Sedition Acts, the federal government had over stepped its bounds and was exercising powers which belonged to the states.
In other words, the Alien and Sedition Acts were acts of usurpation.
James Madison corresponded with Jefferson about these issues, (they suspected that their mail was being secretly opened and read by the way). As a result of their correspondence, James Madison penned another series of resolutions against the Alien and Sedition Acts, which were passed by the Virginia legislature in 1798 and 1799.
As important as these resolutions were in objecting to the unconstitutional Alien and Sedition Acts, their lasting importance was due to the the fact that they were strong statements in defense of federalism, the sovereignty of the people of the several states, and the authority of state governments to check or resist the tyrannical proclivities of the federal government.
Jefferson began the Kentucky Resolutions by explaining the exact nature of the relationship between the new federal, or general government and the states that predated it:
“Resolved, That the several States composing, the United States of America, are not united on the principle of unlimited submission to their general government; but that, by a compact under the style and title of a Constitution for the United States, and of amendments thereto, they constituted a general government for special purposes -delegated to that government certain definite powers, reserving, each State to itself, the residuary mass of right to their own self-government; and that whensoever the general government assumes undelegated powers, its acts are unauthoritative, void, and of no force: that to this compact each State acceded as a State, and is an integral part, its co-States forming, as to itself, the other party: that the government created by this compact was not made the exclusive or final judge of the extent of the powers delegated to itself; since that would have made its discretion, and not the Constitution, the measure of its powers; but that, as in all other cases of compact among powers having no common judge, each party has an equal right to judge for itself, as well of infractions as of the mode and measure of redress.”
These resolutions, authored by Jefferson and Madison, and passed by the Kentucky and Virginia Legislatures, came to be known as the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, or Resolves, of 1798. The ideas they expressed were later referred to as “The Principles of ’98”.
Over time, “The Principles of ’98” would be invoked by many states, for a variety of issues. States invoked them to oppose everything from unconstitutional embargoes in 1807-1809, to the misuse of their militias during The War of 1812, the Second Bank of the United States in 1825, and the Fugitive Slave Acts of 1850.
Even today, The Principles of ’98 have been rediscovered and are being used by both Republicans and Democrats to address unconstitutional federal laws such as federal firearms regulations, EPA, the drug war, and more.
The Principles of ’98, as expressed in Thomas Jefferson’s other declaration, The Kentucky Resolutions, are non-partisan in nature and are just as relevant today as they were in 1798. All we have to do is rediscover and reassert them! Start talking to your state legislators about the Principles of ’98 today!
CLICK HERE – for Model Nullification legislation that can be introduced in your state
CLICK HERE – to get the book, Our Last Hope, the “owner’s manual” for the modern nullification movement.
CLICK HERE – To read more about how the Principles of ’98 were used by states throughout American history.