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Kentucky Resolutions

acts virginia government sedition

A set of proposals formulated by THOMAS JEFFERSON and approved by the state legislature of Kentucky during 1798 and 1799 in opposition to the enactment of the ALIEN AND SEDITION ACTS (1 Stat. 566, 570, 577, 596) by Congress.

The Kentucky Resolutions attacked the validity of the Alien and Sedition Acts, the enactment of which were a reaction to the turbulent political climate of France during the late 1700s following the French Revolution. The acts imposed strict residency requirements in order to attain U.S. citizenship, empowered the president to deport or incarcerate ALIENS who were considered "dangerous," and permitted the criminal prosecution of persons who made critical or seditious speeches or writings against the government. The resolutions advocated a strict constructionist view of the federal government which treated the Constitution as an agreement reached among the states as to the particular powers to be exercised by the central government. The federal government could not act in any way unless specifically authorized to do so in the Constitution. The enactment of the Alien and Sedition Acts was considered to be beyond the powers of Congress and, therefore, the acts were void. The resolutions represented the exercise of the right of the state of Kentucky to declare the acts void through nullification (the declaration that such laws were not legally enforceable).

A comparable series of proposals, the Virginia Resolutions, drawn by JAMES MADISON, and approved by the Virginia legislature in 1798, treated the Alien and Sedition Acts in a similar fashion.

Both the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions did not meet with any real success when presented to other states for adoption. They were, however, significant in American LEGAL HISTORY because they embodied the clash between two competing principles of government—states' rights versus FEDERALISM.

FURTHER READINGS

Costa, Greg. 1999. "John Marshall, the Sedition Act, and Free Speech in the Early Republic." Texas Law Review 77 (March).

Watkins, William J., Jr. 1999. "The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions: Guideposts of Limited Government." Independent Review 3 (winter).

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