The Principles of 1798

  • William J. WatkinsJr.


In the waning months of 1798, the legislatures of Kentucky and Virginia voiced their objections to the Federalists’ Alien and Sedition Acts. Introduced by John Breckinridge, the Kentucky Resolutions were adopted by the state House of Representatives on November 10, 1798, and by the state Senate on November 13, 1798. One month later, John Taylor of Caroline offered similar resolutions in the Virginia legislature. The state House of Delegates approved the Virginia Resolutions on December 21, 1798, and the state Senate concurred three days later. Unbeknownst to contemporaries, the drafts of the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions were prepared by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, respectively. The involvement of a sitting vice president and the Father of the Constitution indicates the severity of the situation. The Republican Party was replete with philosophers, jurists, and essayists— most of whom were familiar with the core concepts of the Constitution. Rather than deferring to others, Jefferson and Madison took it upon themselves to contest Federalist dogma. In but a few hundred words, the Kentucky and Virginia Resolves explained the fundamental principles of the Constitution and challenged the rationale of the Alien and Sedition Acts. Though written over two centuries ago, the Resolves’ insights into the American experiment with self-government remain instructive as we continue to debate the proper roles of the state and national governments.


National Government State Legislature General Government Electoral Vote Grand Jury 
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    TJ to Spencer Roane, September 6, 1819, WTJ 12:136. Some Republicans, however, thought the Revolution of 1800 to be but a change in men, and thus insufficient to remedy the flaws in the Constitution exposed by Federalist rule. See generally Norman K. Risjord, The Old Republicans: Southern Conservatism in the Age of Jefferson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1965). For an example of the amendments suggested, see Wilson Cary Nicholas to John Taylor, November 19, 1807, in David N. Mayer, ed., “Of Principles and Men: The Correspondence of John Taylor of Caroline with Wilson Cary Nicholas, 1806–1808,” 96 Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 370, 370–1 (1988).Google Scholar
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© The Independent Institute 2004

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  • William J. WatkinsJr.

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