In 1798, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison penned the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, formally articulating the principles of nullification for the first time. But the resolutions weren’t the end of the story. In fact, they were intended as a starting point.
During the summer of 1798, Congress passed four laws together known as the Alien and Sedition Acts. These laws violated several constitutional provisions and represented a gross federal usurpation of power.
The first three laws dealt with the treatment of resident aliens. The Alien Friends Act gave the president sweeping power to deport “dangerous” aliens, in effect elevating the president to the role of judge, jury and “executioner.” The Alien Enemies Act allowed for the arrest, imprisonment and deportation of any male citizen of a nation at war with the U.S., even without any evidence that he was an actual threat. These laws unconstitutionally vested judicial powers in the executive branch and denied the accused due process.
The most insidious of the laws was the Sedition Act. It essentially criminalized criticism of the federal government, a blatant violation of the First Amendment.
Recognizing the Alien and Sedition Acts represented a serious threat to the constitutional system, and with few options for addressing the overreach due to Federalist Party control of the federal government, Jefferson and Madison turned to the states.
Jefferson drafted the Kentucky Resolutions and the Kentucky legislature passed a revised version on Nov. 10, 1798. Asserting that “the several States composing, the United States of America, are not united on the principle of unlimited submission to their general government,” Jefferson proclaimed that nullification was the proper response to deal with unconstitutional acts.