previous next

[20] men who took the lead on this occasion, then ardently engaged in the warfare of politics, must not make us fear to tell the truth, that the simple object of the entire movement was to make “political capital” for the approaching election, by holding up to the excited imaginations of the masses the Alien and Sedition laws, as an infraction of the Constitution, which threatened the overthrow of the liberties of the People. The resolutions maintained that, the States being parties to the Constitutional compact, in a case of deliberate, palpable, and dangerous exercise of powers not granted by the compact, the States have a right and are in duty bound to interpose for preventing the progress of the evil.

Such, in brief, was the main purport of the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions. The sort of interposition intended was left in studied obscurity. Not a word was dropped of secession from the Union. Mr. Nicholas's resolution in 1799 hinted at “nullification” as the appropriate remedy for an unconstitutional law, but what was meant by the ill-sounding word was not explained. The words “null, void, and of no effect,” contained in the original draft of the Virginia resolutions, were, on motion of John Taylor of Caroline, stricken from them, on their passage through the assembly; and Mr. Madison, in his report of 1799, carefully explains that no extra constitutional measures were intended. One of the Kentucky resolutions ends with an invitation to the States to unite in a petition to Congress to repeal the laws.

These resolutions were communicated, as I have said, to the other States for concurrence. From most of them no response was received; some adopted dissenting reports and resolutions; not one concurred. But the resolutions did their work — all that they were intended or expected to do — by shaking the Administration. At the ensuing election, Mr. Jefferson, at whose instance the entire movement was made, was chosen President by a very small majority; Mr. Madison was placed at the head of his administration as Secretary of State; the obnoxious laws expired by their own limitation; not repealed by the dominant party, as Mr. Calhoun with strange inadvertence asserts;1 and Mr. Jefferson proceeded to administer the Government upon constitutional principles quite as lax, to say the least, as those of his predecessors. If there was any marked departure in his general policy from the course hitherto pursued, it was that, having some theoretical prejudices against a navy, he allowed that branch of the service to languish. By no Administration have the powers of the General Government been more liberally construed — not to say further strained — sometimes beneficially, as in the acquisition of Louisiana, sometimes perniciously as in the embargo. The resolutions of 1798, and the metaphysics they inculcated, were surrendered to the cobwebs which habitually await the plausible exaggerations of the canvass after an election is decided. These resolutions of 1798 have been sometimes in Virginia waked from their slumbers at closely contested elections as a party cry; the report of the Hartford Convention, without citing them by name, borrows their language; but as representing in their modern interpretation any system on which the Government ever was or could be administered, they were buried in the same grave as the Laws which called them forth.

Unhappily during their transient vitality, like the butterfly which deposits its egg in the apple blossoms that have so lately filled our orchards with beauty and

1 Mr. Calhoun's Discouree on the Constitution, p. 859.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Places (automatically extracted)

View a map of the most frequently mentioned places in this document.

Sort places alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a place to search for it in this document.
Louisiana (Louisiana, United States) (1)

Download Pleiades ancient places geospacial dataset for this text.

hide People (automatically extracted)
Sort people alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a person to search for him/her in this document.
Madison (2)
Jefferson (2)
Calhoun (2)
John Taylor (1)
Wilson Cary Nicholas (1)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
1799 AD (2)
1798 AD (2)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: