Forty years ago, a book was published that foreshadowed the use of nullification to combat unconstitutional federal laws. Today, it is as timely as it is eerily prophetic.
Dan Sisson’s The American Revolution of 1800: How Jefferson Rescued Democracy from Tyranny and Faction – and What This Means Today is a historical account of how Jefferson successfully challenged the attempts by the Adams Administration to reconstruct an oligarchy they had fought so hard to remove from their country nearly twenty years before.
It is a cliché statement to say that a book is a must-read, yet it is difficult to overstate the significance of Sisson’s book, first published in 1974 and at a time when the ideas of nullification, secession, and state’s rights were still regarded as code works for racism, segregation, and slavery.
It is a testament to Sisson’s character that he wrote so eloquently on these matters when they were the least popular, as it would be 30 years before the Tenth Amendment Center was founded and Tom Woods’ book Nullification helped bring about a renewed interest in the topic.
Sisson’s book demonstrates how the 1800 presidential election was nothing short of a second American Revolution, albeit strictly through the political process rather than violent overthrow, and served as an example of what Jefferson himself saw as continuous, necessary change within government.
The election, as Sisson viewed it, was a titanic clash between two diametrically opposed political philosophies, one in which the people ultimately retained authority over themselves and the other wherein a group of elites dictated laws to the masses. With the election of Jefferson, it was a triumph of his belief in republicanism against the Hamiltonian system made manifest in the Federalists, which represented the most hated concept of a political faction concerned for their own power rather than the national good.
Though the entire book, particularly the first chapter detailing the disgust the Founding Fathers had for political factions, is a gem, Chapter 6 concerning the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions is by far the most compelling.
Sisson vividly describes the crisis caused by Adams’ administration after the passage of the Alien and Sedition Act, which threatened to destroy the concept of a free press. In turn, His explanation of Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions’s significance is also worth noting. They were not mere protests against the Alien and Sedition Act, but provided the Jeffersonian relationship between the people and their government. The people, not the government, retained ultimately power and could never permanently give up their authority to a government.
In writing them, Jefferson and Madison were “attempting to deny any construction or interpretation of the Constitution by the general government. Indeed, if there was to be any interpretation, it would be done by the states.”
Sisson writes that “this approach, if successful, would have curtailed the power of the national government and prevented any future expansion of power, especially at the expense of the states.”
Jefferson also reminded the Federalists in power that the Union was a compact between states, which Sisson describes as “nothing less than a revival, in principle, of the Spirit of ’76.”
“Jefferson had, in the midst of crisis, unleashed a powerful force in society,” Sisson writes. “It was an idea of resistance, peaceful and constitutional in nature but profoundly revolutionary in purpose….In retrospect, Jefferson along with Madison had put together the first building blocks of a revolution.”
These Resolutions promoted the belief that when the federal government outstepped its constitutional bounds, nullification was the “rightful remedy,” an idea which seemed abhorrent to the power-hungry Federalists.
Several passages highlight Sisson’s masterful eye in perceiving what was actually being fought over in these political feuds between Jefferson and the likes of Hamilton.
“Hamilton’s notion of the Constitution was that it was must preserved at all costs, even at the expense of individual liberty. Jefferson’s idea was that liberty was primary – even an absolute – value. One was commitment to the post-revolutionary society emphasizing values of stability and order. The other was commitment to the revolutionary society emphasizing the values of liberty and denying power to the central government. The primary concerns of the first were considerations that gave rise to empire, commerce, and security; the second were equated with the basic ideals of the American Revolution.”
Thus, the concept of nullification was in keeping with the principles of the American Revolution, and “Jefferson saw himself fighting essentially the same struggle he had twenty-five years earlier.”
Sisson even writes, seemingly, about secession in a positive light, stating that “Jefferson’s assertion about severing the Union would, if the federal government persisted in usurping the power of the states, naturally follow his ‘agreed’ upon adherence to the principles of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions.” He also refers to Madison’s Virginia Report of 1799-1800, in which Madison declared the states had a “duty” to resist federal usurpation of undelegated authority, as “one of the most important papers written by an American statesmen.”
Lest anyone dismiss Sisson as some sort of Neo-Confederate, the book’s foreword and afterword is written by progressive talk-show host Thom Hartmen. Though the solutions Hartmen proposes in the Afterword represent, in our opinion, a profound misdiagnosis of the political problems this country, it nevertheless shows that the ideas promoted in the book are neither Left nor Right. One wonders where we might be as a nation had Americans paid more attention to Sisson’s book when it was first published and heeded the lessons therein.
For those looking to rescue the true history behind nullification from myths and propaganda, Sisson’s The American Revolution of 1800 is the “rightful remedy.”