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Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions - Essay Example

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When the United States Constitution was established and the various states entered into a union that included a federal structure with a national government and the various state governments, there was a period of some uncertainty regarding which level of government was the…
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Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions
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When the United s Constitution was established and the various s entered into a union that included a federal structure with a national government and the various state governments, there was a period of some uncertainty regarding which level of government was the ultimate authority as the people’s representatives. The question would be resolved over the course of US history through such events as Supreme Court decisions that established the supremacy clause (McCulloch v. Maryland, and others), the slavery and nullification crisis, and finally the Civil War. However this evolution came with a struggle that was marked by numerous constitutional crises. Perhaps the most important early constitutional crisis that dealt with this issue revolved around the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts. These laws, which dealt censorship in the press, immigration, treason, and related punishments, were established by national government and endorsed by a majority of the states as a means of securing the national safety and welfare during its time of early development, but they were believed by several key founding fathers – notably Thomas Jefferson and James Madison – to be unconstitutional. In response to the laws, Jefferson penned the Kentucky Resolution and Madison the Virginia Resolution – both documents that mapped out a protest against the national laws which eventually fed into those later constitutional fights. In this brief paper, the arguments Jefferson and Madison put forward will be compared and contrasted.
Both Jefferson and Madison relied on a theory of a national compact in the establishment of the US Constitution which argued that the states were the true representatives of the people and that they had endorsed the national constitution, but only so far as it went in carrying out its limited powers enumerated in the Constitution. Madison (1798) wrote that the Virginia Assembly viewed the national government’s role “as resulting from the compact, to which the states are parties; as limited by the plain sense and intention of the instrument constituting the compact.” He argued that that the states had a “right” and in fact were “duty bound” to “interpose” when the national government overstepped its role and sought powers that the states believed were beyond the limits of its authority. Jefferson (1799) agreed, claiming that if the national government were the sole authority regarding the limits of its authority it would lead to the dissolution of the states and a construction of the nation on their ruins in a way that would “stop nothing short of despotism.” He argued that the states had an “unquestionable right” to judge the national government’s infractions on their power and that “nullification” was the “rightful remedy.” Madison and Jefferson relied on different styles of argument to justify their positions. Madison argued procedurally that the Alien and Sedition Acts had combined legislative and judicial powers under the executive and had limited the rights of conscience secured under the Bill of Rights that had been passed as a means of securing ratification, while Jefferson argued politically that the other states had been unreasonable in their passage of the laws in a way that promoted despotism and criminality on the part of the government. However, the fact that both men ultimately agreed that the states had a right to protest and even ignore the national government’s authority over such a momentous policy called into question the ultimate health of both the national Constitution and even the “compact” that they argued was at its heart.
In the end the arguments put forward by Madison and Jefferson in the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions failed. The national government came to have the very power that they feared. However, much of the early constitutional history of the US revolved around the arguments that they made. The “states’ rights” argument was used by slavery proponents as justification for their nullification of national policy regarding the return of escaped slaves across state lines, and eventually led to the Civil War. The issue continues to arise even in modern times around such policies as abortion and health coverage. The right of states to represent their population in opposition to the national policy therefore remains a constitutional question in the limited government formed by our federal system.
References
Jefferson, Thomas. (1799). The Kentucky Resolution. Accessed 10 June 2011. http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/kenres.asp.
Madison, James. (1798). The Virginia Resolution. Accessed 10 June 2011. http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/virres.asp. Read More
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