Thus far I've written at length about various efforts undertaken by the American Founding Fathers to describe, promote, expand, and solidify their nation. And in the process I've discussed the circumstances surrounding the outbreak of the Revolution, government under the Articles of Confederation, the ratification of the Constitution, and concepts like freedom of conscience, taxation, national debt, classical republicanism, and American empire. For the most part, I’d say the documents I've chosen to highlight have been of a generally constructive nature. That is, they detail the processes by which members of the founding generation tried to expand on the ideas that they held dear, and as a group possess a certain propulsive, forward momentum in the narratives they try to construct. They are essentially positive documents that portray the American founding as an optimistic, progressive experience. That being said, I've tried to illuminate some of the conflicts that were going on between different factions of the Founders, where appropriate. But, in all, they haven’t been at the centre of any of the documents or events that I've yet presented.
For this reason I’d like now to turn to the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, written by Thomas Jefferson and presented to and ratified by the Kentucky state legislature in November of that year. Though I spent some amount of time during my discussion of George Washington’s Farewell Address to describe some of the political conflicts that defined the 1790s in the United States, Jefferson’s Resolutions are a direct product of those conflicts. Drafted in secret and released to the public with their author unacknowledged, they were an outgrowth of several major strands of the era’s political struggles; support for Britain against France, Federalism against Republicanism, and neutrality against interventionism. And, specifically, they were a direct response to the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts by the Adams administration in November, 1797. In the main, these pieces of legislation increased the number of years of residence for naturalization from 5 to 14, made it legal for the federal government to imprison or deport any aliens considered unfriendly or dangerous to the safety of the United States, as well as prosecute individuals or groups who had published works critical of the character and conduct of the government itself.
The Resolutions were intended to position the states in opposition to what was perceived by critics of the Adams administration as unconstitutional breaches of the personal liberties of American citizens, landed immigrants and foreign guests. While James Madison, author of the companion Virginia Resolutions, called for the states to simply “interpose” themselves between the federal government and the general population to ensure that the offending laws were not carried into force, the ever-radical Jefferson claimed that it was the right of the various state governments to declare legislation found to be unconstitutional null and void. In some circles, both for and against the Acts, this threat of nullification gave way to talk of secession and the break-up of the Union. Indeed, in some parts of the country military preparations were made for either armed resistance to federal authority or its forceful imposition. While peace ultimately prevailed, in spite of the arrest and deportation of scores of foreign-born residents and anti-government printers and editorialists, the concept of nullification that Jefferson introduced in 1798 became a cornerstone of American populism and resistance to federal power. These so-called “principles of ‘98” reared their head again in 1832, when government of South Carolina attempted to declare a federal tariff it found harmful to its economy to be unconstitutional, and in the 1850s and 1860s, when disagreements between the Northern and Southern states over the status and expansion of slavery became entangled in discussions of state’s rights, natural rights, the limits of federal power, and, ultimately, secessionism.
As always, however, some preliminary explanation is required.
To begin I think it’s important to understand, if only as a means of adequately grasping the magnitude of the gesture, that when Jefferson drafted the Resolutions he was the sitting Vice-President of the United States of America. His career between 1776, when he lent his pen to the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, and 1798 was a rather tumultuous one, leading from Philadelphia to Richmond to Paris; from revolutionary to diplomat to public official. In 1779, after serving a term in the Virginia state legislature, he was elected Governor by his fellow delegates. In 1781 he was forced to flee an impending invasion of his Monticello estate, along with several state legislators, by a British force intent on capturing him. Because his tenure as Governor had not been technically completed, he was later accused of abandoning his responsibilities and underwent an investigation by the General Assembly. After a period of mourning and recovery following his wife Martha’s death in 1782, Jefferson was elected to serve once more as one of Virginia’s delegates to the Continental Congress. During his brief tenure he devoted a great deal of his energy to sorting out the conflicting claims of the various states to territories west of the Appalachians, and establishing a clear, unambiguous procedure for the admission of new states to the Union. In July, 1784 he left the United States after accepting an appointment as Minister to France, where he would remain for the better part of the next five years.
Though his term in France was generally uneventful, Jefferson did become acquainted with many of the future leaders of the French Revolution and even allowed them to make use of his residence as a meeting place. He was also able to greatly expand his personal library, debate with some of the capital’s brightest philosophical minds, acquire a taste for French cuisine, art, and fashion, and hammer out numerous trade agreements with the ailing royal government. While his return to the United States in September, 1789 preceded the outbreak of the revolution by several months, he became one of the movement’s most ardent American supporters. This strong cultural and ideological affinity brought him into vehement conflict with many of his colleagues during his years of service as the first Secretary of State (1790-1793). He accepted the appointment only after much contemplation, and cajoling by President Washington, and during his time in the first federal cabinet became embroiled in a series of disputes with Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. Many of their quarrels revolved around Jefferson’s support for the French Republic, his promotion of free trade, and his suspicion of the power of the federal government and its potential for abuse. During this same period, in an attempt to counter the influence of Hamilton and his “Federalist” faction, Jefferson and his long-time friend and ally James Madison began to organize a rival, anti-administration faction that could help spread what they felt were the true principles of American republicanism via newspapers, editorials, and local political societies. His role as one of the leaders of this “Republican” organization earned him the lasting enmity of many early Federalists, and the offended indignation of Washington himself. In 1793, after failing to secure important concessions from the British Minister to the U.S. concerning violations of the 1783 Treaty of Paris, the frustrated Jefferson resigned his post and retired to his Virginia estate.
Jefferson spent several years in the political, and literal, wilderness of Monticello, occupying his time in study, writing, and administering his sizeable plantation. When he re-entered public life in 1796, it was as the Republican’s standard bearer in that year’s presidential election. Though he failed to win enough votes to secure the highest office for his faction, in something of an embarrassment for the Federalists he garnered enough support to be named Vice-President (under the rules then in place, candidates ran as individuals rather than on tickets, with the first place finisher taking the presidency and the second place the vice-presidency). At this early stage in American history the responsibilities of the office of Vice-President were exceedingly limited, and so Jefferson occupied himself mainly with attempting to reform the rules of conduct in the Senate (which he formally presided over) and continuing to refine and expand the Republican political organization. It was during this period in Jefferson’s professional life that the domestic conflict between American supporters of Britain and France entered a more active, and potentially dangerous, phase.
In spite of their military and trade alliance in the 1770s and 1780s, relations between France and the United States entered a period of steady decline following the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789. Initially enthused by the overthrow of the French monarchy and the declaration of a republic, the Washington Administration and the American people alike grew increasingly concerned over reports of shocking violence in the streets of Paris, and the new government’s somewhat erratic military and diplomatic efforts. For many in the United States the appearance and actions of French envoy Edmond-Charles Genêt, who arrived in America in 1793, began to recruit people to fight against France’s enemies, asked the Washington administration to abandon its neutrality, and refused to bow to the president’s demands that he cease, solidified their suspicion that their former ally could no longer be trusted. When, in 1794, the United States and Great Britain successfully negotiated a peaceful resolution to a series of disputes that had lingered since the early 1780s and paved the way for an expanded commercial relationship, the government of the French Republic no doubt came to a similar conclusion. When the United States government then refused to continue repaying its debt to France on the grounds that the money was owed to the now-deposed monarchy, French privateers began seizing American vessels trading with Britain and refused to receive a new American ambassador when he arrived in Paris in late 1796. When President John Adams, who had been sworn in in early 1797, reported to Congress the following year of the bribes the French government demanded of the United States in order to even begin contemplating negotiation, it seemed to many that war was inevitable.
The cost of this conflict to American shipping was substantial, partially because after 1785 the United States had no navy to speak of. As reported by the Department of State in the summer of 1797, over 300 American vessels had been seized by the French over the course of the previous year. This in turn caused insurance rates in the U.S. shipping industry to increase by something on the order to 500%. This led to Congress authorizing the President to acquire and arm up to 12 vessels for the purpose of protecting America’s commercial interests. Numerous vessels were subsequently purchased and outfitted, and several more underwent speedy construction. In the meantime, in order to both curb Republican criticism of government actions taken against France and counter the supposed subversive influence of French nationals in the United States, the Federalist-controlled Congress passed four pieces of legislation in June and July of 1798: “An Act to Establish a Uniform Rule of Naturalization,” “An Act Concerning Aliens,” and “An Act Respecting Alien Enemies” (collectively known as the Alien Act), as well as “An Act for the Punishment of Certain Crimes Against the United States” (commonly known as the Sedition Act). Because both houses of the national legislature were controlled by the Federalists, the acts were passed with relative ease in spite of strenuous opposition from Republican members.
It was within this political climate that Vice-President Thomas Jefferson and former Virginia congressman James Madison each formulated a series of resolutions intent on representing the objections of their Republican faction to the tenor of Adams administration policy regarding the conflict with the French. Madison’s writings were adopted by the Virginia General Assembly in December, 1798, while Jefferson’s were ratified by the Kentucky state legislature the previous month. Both did so anonymously, believing perhaps as Alexander Hamilton had in 1787 that their arguments deserved to be considered objectively, and outside the influence of their respective reputations.