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In United Statesmarker history, the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions (or Resolves) were political statements in favor of states' rights and Strict Constructionism. They were written secretly by Vice President Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.


The resolutions opposed the federal Alien and Sedition Acts, that extended the powers of the federal government. They argued that the Constitution was a "compact" or agreement among the states. Therefore, the federal government had no right to exercise powers not specifically delegated to it and that if the federal government assumed such powers, acts under them would be void. So, states could decide the constitutionality of laws passed by Congress.

A key provision of the Kentucky Resolutions was Resolution 2, that denied Congress more than a few penal powers:

That the Constitution of the United States, having delegated to Congress a power to punish treason, counterfeiting the securities and current coin of the United States, piracies, and felonies committed on the high seas, and offenses against the law of nations, and no other crimes, whatsoever; and it being true as a general principle, and one of the amendments to the Constitution having also declared, that "the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, not prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people," therefore the act of Congress, passed on the 14th day of July, 1798, and intituled "An Act in addition to the act intituled An Act for the punishment of certain crimes against the United States," as also the act passed by them on the -- day of June, 1798, intituled "An Act to punish frauds committed on the bank of the United States," (and all their other acts which assume to create, define, or punish crimes, other than those so enumerated in the Constitution,) are altogether void, and of no force; and that the power to create, define, and punish such other crimes is reserved, and, of right, appertains solely and exclusively to the respective States, each within its own territory.

Legislative History

Thomas Jefferson wrote the Kentucky Resolutions. The Kentucky state legislature passed the first resolution on November 16, 1798 and the second on December 3, 1799.

James Madison wrote the Virginia Resolution. The Virginia state legislature passed it on December 24, 1798.

The Resolutions joined the foundational beliefs of Jefferson's party and were used as party documents in the 1800 election. As they had been shepherded to passage in the Virginia House of Delegates by John Taylor of Caroline, they became part of the heritage of the "Old Republicans." Taylor, unlike James Madison, rejoiced in what the House of Delegates had made of private citizen Madison's draft: it had read the claim that the Alien and Sedition Acts were unconstitutional as meaning that they had "no force or effect" in Virginia – that is, that they were void. Numerous scholars (including Koch and Ammon) have noted that Madison had the words "void, and of no force or effect" excised from the Resolutions before adoption. Future Virginia Governor and U.S. Secretary of War James Barbour concluded that "unconstitutional" included "void, and of no force or effect." Barbour concluded that Madison's textual change did not affect the meaning. Their long-term importance lies not in their attack on the Sedition law, but rather in their strong statements of states' rights theory, which led to rather different concepts of nullification and interposition. Jefferson at one point drafted a threat for Virginia to secede, but dropped it from the text. In January 1800, the Virginia General Assembly passed the Report of 1800, a document by Madison affirming the principles of the Resolutions and responding to criticism they had received.

The resolutions were submitted to the other states for approval but with no success. In New Hampshiremarker, newspapers treated them as military threats and replied with foreshadowings of civil war. "We think it highly probable that Virginia and Kentucky will be sadly disappointed in their infernal plan of exciting insurrections and tumults," proclaimed one. The state legislature's unanimous reply was blunt:

Alexander Hamilton, then building up the army, suggested sending it into Virginia, on some "obvious pretext." Measures would be taken, Hamilton hinted to an ally in Congress, "to act upon the laws and put Virginia to the Test of resistance."

All the New Englandmarker states rejected the resolutions. However, the state governments of Massachusettsmarker, Connecticutmarker, and Rhode Islandmarker threatened to ignore the Embargo Act of 1807 based on the authority of states to stand up to laws deemed by those states to be unconstitutional. Rhode Island justified its position on the embargo act based on the explicit language of interposition. Within five years, Massachusetts and Connecticut asserted their right to test constitutionality when instructed to send their militias to defend the coast during the War of 1812. Connecticut and Massachusetts questioned another embargo passed in 1813. The supreme courts of both states objected, including this statement from the Massachusetts General Court:

During the "nullification crisis" of 1828-1833, South Carolinamarker threatened to nullify a federal law regarding tariffs. Andrew Jackson issued a proclamation against the doctrine of nullification, stating: "I consider...the power to annul a law of the United States, assumed by one State, incompatible with the existence of the Union, contradicted expressly by the letter of the Constitution, unauthorized by its spirit, inconsistent with every principle on which it was founded, and destructive of the great object for which it was formed." He also denied the right to secede: "The Constitution...forms a government not a league...To say that any State may at pleasure secede from the Union is to say that the United States is not a nation." Later, Abraham Lincoln also rejected the compact theory saying the Constitution was a binding contract among the states and no contract can be changed unilaterally by one party.

In 2009, Dan Itse, a member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives from Fremontmarker, New Hampshiremarker, led a national movement to restore the powers of the states through the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions.

Importance of the Resolutions

Historians differ on the importance of the resolutions. Some are ambivalent because of their long-term impact. As Jefferson's biographer explains:


  • Gutzman, Kevin, "'O, What a Tangled Web We Weave ...': James Madison and the Compound Republic," _Continuity 22 (1998), 19-29.
  • Gutzman, Kevin, "A Troublesome Legacy: James Madison and the 'Principles of '98,'" Journal of the Early Republic 15 (1995), 569-89.
  • Gutzman, Kevin., "The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions Reconsidered: 'An Appeal to the _Real Laws_ of Our Country,'" Journal of Southern History 66 (2000), 473-96.
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