1798 was an important year. The Principles of ’98 influenced all of American history. The Alien and Sedition Acts and the Kentucky Resolutions revealed these principles.
There existed hostility between the US and France. The Alien Act involved immigrants, but the Sedition Act made clear that it was a crime for anyone to criticize the US government. Although Jefferson thought this violated the First Amendment, others didn’t think so. It was possible that the Federalists and/or the Republicans would use these Acts in partisan fashion – particularly to shut down the Republican Party. Jefferson drafted a series of resolutions that were presented in Kentucky and in Virginia as protests against the Acts.
The Kentucky Resolutions explained what was wrong with the Sedition Act and what could be done about it. Jefferson saw that the Tenth Amendment said that the Federal government did not have any power to deny speech. He noted that the states created the federal government. Only certain few and defined powers were extended to the federal government. All other powers remained with the state. The state needs to defend itself if the federal government illegitimately goes beyond its power. Jefferson opted for the nullification process. He knew that states had the power to secede, but Jefferson did not think the time for secession had yet come. Sheer submission to the Acts would just encourage worse behavior. Petitions and elections don’t always solve problems. The Supreme Court was staffed by Federalists who would not support Jefferson. Jefferson saw the Supreme Court’s role as advisory only. He believed that all three branches had the power to interpret the Constitution. So, nullification, or interposition, was the best response.
Lecture 3 of 14 from Tom Woods' The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History lecture series.