- uploaded: Oct 8, 2012
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What Is It? State nullification is the idea that the states can and must refuse to enforce unconstitutional federal laws.
Says Who? Says Thomas Jefferson, among other distinguished Americans. His draft of the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 first introduced the word “nullification” into American political life, and follow-up resolutions in 1799 employed Jefferson’s formulation that “nullification…is the rightful remedy” when the federal government reaches beyond its constitutional powers. In the Virginia Resolutions of 1798, James Madison said the states were “duty bound to resist” when the federal government violated the Constitution.
But Jefferson didn’t invent the idea. Federalist supporters of the Constitution at the Virginia ratifying convention of 1788 assured Virginians that they would be “exonerated” should the federal government attempt to impose “any supplementary condition” upon them – in other words, if it tried to exercise a power over and above the ones the states had delegated to it. Patrick Henry and later Jefferson himself elaborated on these safeguards that Virginians had been assured of at their ratifying convention.
What’s the Argument for It? Here’s an extremely basic summary:
1) The states preceded the Union. The Declaration of Independence speaks of “free and independent states” that “have full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent states may of right do.” The British acknowledged the independence not of a single blob, but of 13 states, which they proceeded to list one by one. Article II of the Articles of Confederation says the states “retain their sovereignty, freedom, and independence”; they must have enjoyed that sovereignty in the past in order for them to “retain” it in 1781 when the Articles were officially adopted.