Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions Summary, Significance, and Facts

1798–1799

The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions were written by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson in response to the Alien and Sedition Acts. The Resolutions established the idea of Nullification.

James Madison, Painting

James Madison secretly authored the Virginia Resolutions. Image Source: Wikipedia.

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Summary of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions

The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions (or Resolves), also known as the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, were a written protest against the Alien and Sedition Acts. The Resolutions were passed by the state legislatures of Kentucky and Virginia in response to the acts passed by Congress in 1798, under the control of the Federalist Party. Founding Father John Adams was President at the time. Adams was also a member of the Federalist Party.

The acts were passed during a time when the United States was still a new republic and political parties were still relatively new. It was also a time when tension with France was high due to a political scandal known as the XYZ Affair. The scandal contributed to the Quasi-War, which was an undeclared naval war with France that lasted from 1798 to 1800. The acts targeted aliens — or foreigners — and people who openly criticized President Adams and his administration.

John Adams, Portrait, Stuart

John Adams was President of the United States when the Alien and Sedition Acts were passed. Image Source: Wikipedia.

In all, there were 10 people — all critics of the Federalist policies — convicted for violating the Sedition Act. One of the people indicted for stirring up sedition was Republican Congressman Matthew Lyon from Vermont. Lyon was a harsh critic of President Adams and was found guilty of sedition and put in jail. Lyon ran for Congress and ran his campaign from jail. Lyon was re-elected.

The Resolutions were secretly written by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison — both Founding Fathers — and they challenged the Alien and Sedition Acts on the grounds that they went beyond the powers specifically given to the federal government by the United States Constitution. In the Resolutions, Jefferson and Madison introduced the concept of Nullification. It was an idea that said individual states had the power to declare federal legislation null and void when it went beyond the powers given to the federal government in the Constitution.

The concept of Nullification came to the forefront in the 1830s when Southern states disagreed with tariffs the government put in place on imports from Britain. The tariffs benefitted manufacturers in the Northern states and forced Southerners to buy more expensive products. The tariffs fueled Sectionalism and the growing divide between the North and the South.

South Carolina used political means to protest the tariffs and based its argument on Nullification. It was very similar to how colonists responded to the Sugar Act of 1764 because they chose to use words to oppose the laws of the government instead of force.

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Outcome of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions

Although all the other states rejected Kentucky and Virginia’s call to join their challenge of federal authority at the time, the concept of nullification was invoked in later disputes involving states’ rights, most notably those centered on the issue of slavery.

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The Alien and Sedition Acts were unpopular, and the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions helped fuel the opposition. The outrage over the acts led to the election of Thomas Jefferson as President in 1800. Jefferson pardoned everyone who was convicted for crimes under the Alien Enemies Act and the Sedition Act.

The idea of Nullification set a precedent for South Carolina to oppose the Tariff of 1832 by enacting the South Carolina Ordinance of Nullification. This led to the Nullification Crisis which saw President Andrew Jackson mobilize Federal troops in South Carolina and nearly started a civil war.

Significance of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions

The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions were important because they established the concept of Nullification. Although no other states supported the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions at the time, some states did invoke Nullification later on in defense of their positions regarding the Embargo Act of 1807, the War of 1812, federal tariffs, and, most notably, the issue of slavery. By establishing the concept of Nullification, the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions are considered to be a cause of the Civil War, which took place from 1861 to 1865.

Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions — Quick Facts for Kids

Facts about the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, including dates, participants, purpose, outcome, and other interesting details you might not know. This fact sheet provides a quick overview of the topic and is for kids doing research and students preparing for the AP U.S. History (APUSH) exam.

Definition

The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions were a series of resolutions passed by Virginia and Kentucky in 1798 and 1799 in protest of the Alien and Sedition Acts.

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Alien and Sedition Acts

  • In 1798, the United States Congress passed four laws, collectively known as the Alien and Sedition Acts.
  • The provisions of the acts placed new restrictions on aliens living in the U.S. and made it illegal to make false or libelous statements about the federal government or the President.

Opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts

  • Members of the Democratic-Republican Party believed that the Alien and Sedition Acts were aimed at silencing them and their criticism of the President.
  • Thomas Jefferson and James Madison worked together and wrote resolutions that opposed the Alien and Sedition Acts.

Kentucky Resolutions

  • On November 16, 1798, the Kentucky state legislature passed a resolution challenging the Alien and Sedition Acts.
  • The Kentucky Resolution of 1798 declared the Alien and Sedition Acts to be “void and of no force.”
  • The Kentucky legislature passed a second resolution on December 3, 1799.
  • The Kentucky Resolution of 1799 introduced the term “nullification” and was a response to states who rejected the 1798 Resolution.
  • Together, the two acts are known as the Kentucky Resolutions.
  • Thomas Jefferson is typically viewed as the author of the Kentucky Resolutions.

Thomas Jefferson, Painting, Rembrandt Peale

Thomas Jefferson wrote the Kentucky Resolutions. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Virginia Resolutions

  • On December 24, 1798. the Virginia state legislature passed a resolution challenging the Alien and Sedition Acts.
  • James Madison secretly authored the Virginia Resolution.

The Resolutions Challenge the Authority of the Federal Government

  • Jefferson and Madison challenged the Alien and Sedition Acts on the grounds that they went beyond the powers specifically granted to the federal government in the U.S. Constitution.
  • They believed that such an extension of federal power was an encroachment on states’ rights.

The Main Idea of the Resolutions Was Nullification

  • Jefferson and Madison argued that the United States was formed as a compact between the states and that the Constitution established the rules of that compact.
  • If the federal government, afterward, passed legislation that went beyond the powers specifically delegated to it in the Constitution, then the legislation was null and void.
  • The idea that states could declare federal legislation null and void is known as the doctrine of nullification.

A Cause of the American Civil War

The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions challenged the authority of the Federal government and established the concept of Nullification. The ideas found in the Resolutions contributed to the thought process of politicians in Southern states who protested Federal laws and eventually ceded from the Union — a direct cause of the Civil War.

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Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions Videos

These videos from the Bill of Rights Institute help explain the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, and answer the question, “Who determines the constitutionality of laws?”

Reading the Kentucky Resolutions

Reading the Virginia Resolutions

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Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions Summary, Significance, and Facts
  • Coverage 1798–1799
  • Author
  • Keywords Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, American History Facts for Kids, Social Studies Resources, APUSH Study Material
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date October 4, 2022
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update May 12, 2022

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