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Kentucky Adopts Jefferson’s “Resolves”: November 16, 1798

Though a little cowed by the XYZ Affair, the Republicans did not let up in their attacks on Adams and the Federalists. Using a network of newspapers, Republicans harshly attacked the president and the Federalist members of Congress. Since many of the editors of these papers were foreign immigrants, the Federalists counterattacked by accusing the Republicans of wanting to give the country over to foreign powers.

John Adams

The Federalist Congress and President Adams responded to fears of foreign infiltration by passing three acts in 1798. The first, the Naturalization Act, extended from five to 14 years the time a foreigner must reside in the United States before he could become a citizen. The Alien Act gave the president power for two years to expel any foreigners he wished. The more controversial Sedition Act made it a crime to say or write anything critical of the president or government of the United States “with the intent to defame” or “to bring into contempt or disrepute.” The crime was punishable by fine or imprisonment.

President Adams justified the Sedition Act by arguing that when the leaders of government are abused, government itself loses its dignity and force. Twenty-five men were arrested and ten convicted under the act, including several Republican editors. The first man to be indicted, however, was Vermont representative Matthew Lyon. Lyon had almost been expelled from Congress for spitting in Representative Roger Griswold’s face while in chambers (Griswold had publicly mocked him). Later, Griswold assaulted Lyon with a stick in the House chamber, and Lyon responded by assailing Griswold with a fire tongs. But the final straw was an article Lyon published in the Vermont Gazette denouncing the Sedition Act. Arrested and charged with libel, Lyon was pronounced guilty and sentenced to pay a $1,000 fine and spend four months in jail. Lyon thus was made a Republican martyr.

A 1798 drawing of the fight in Congress between Matthew Lyon and Roger Griswold

Dominated by Republicans, the Kentucky and Virginia legislatures approved two important critiques of the Alien and Sedition Acts, and the Constitution itself. The first of these, the Kentucky Resolves (adopted November 16, 1798), was written anonymously by Thomas Jefferson, who as vice president could not honorably oppose the Adams administration’s policies in public. The states, said the Kentucky Resolves, did not unite “on the principle of unlimited submission” to the federal government; rather, they formed a “compact” by which they “constituted a general government for special purposes” and “delegated to that government certain definite powers, reserving each State to itself, the residuary mass of right to their own self-government.”

Thomas Jefferson

Since the national government, said Jefferson, was created by a compact among equals — itself and the states — it could not be “the exclusive or final judge of the extent of the powers delegated to itself, since that would have made its discretion, and not the Constitution, the measure of its powers.” Since the parties that agreed to the Constitution set up no person or body to stand as a judge between them, “each party,” said Jefferson, “has an equal right to judge for itself, as well of infractions as of the mode and measure of redress.” Thus, if a state government thought an act of the federal government was unconstitutional it could refuse to recognize — that is, it could nullify — the act — until a convention of states could gather to decide on its constitutionality.

The Virginia Resolves, composed by James Madison, was a shorter document that followed Jefferson’s reasoning.

James Madison

Other state legislatures roundly condemned the Resolves in the winter and spring of 1799. The legislatures argued that since the Constitution provided that “the judicial powers shall extend to all cases arising under the laws of the United States,” it was the federal courts and ultimately the Supreme Court, that decided on the constitutionality of any act or law of the Congress of the United States. This reasoning, however, did not convince Jefferson. In a further set of Kentucky Resolves, issued in February 1799, he replied that, since the federal courts are a branch of the federal government, making them the “exclusive judge of the extent of the powers delegated to it [the federal government]” would lead to a despotic federal control over the state governments. 

Folk Music from Old America

Performed by Mike Seeger — half brother to the famous folk singer, Pete Seeger.

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