What was the legal theory under which states were able to reject federal laws deemed unconstitutional?
The legal theory under which states were able to reject federal laws deemed unconstitutional was called “nullification.”
As all students of American history know, the debate over the fundamental question of states’ rights was among the most enduring since the ratification of the Constitution of the United States. The authors of the nation’s most important documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, were all heavily influenced by notions of representative government and restrictions on the power of all forms of government. The constitution was drafted and debated within the context of a revolution intended to eliminate the tyranny of a distant monarchy, and Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton and others wanted very much to establish a form of government that would be inherently incapable of imposing itself upon those it ostensibly represented and on whose behalf it presumably acted. Integral to these discussions and debates the question of where and how to draw the line between the end of federal authorities and beginning of the authorities granted the states. The effort at drawing that line resulted in ratification, on December 15, 1791, of the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution, which states:
“The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.”
The issue of nullification would emerge as an important symbol of the fractured nature of the newly-established United States of America, and the debates that would occur leading up the Civil War, the ultimate manifestation of the nation’s inability to peacefully resolve that debate, revealed the extent of the disagreements regarding the line between the federal government and the states. In his impassioned, but anonymously delivered, plea for rejection of the Alien and Sedition Acts that he believed threatened the viability of the democratic nature of the government he worked so hard to bring to fruition, Thomas Jefferson authored what became known as “the Kentucky Resolutions,” presented on November 10, 1798, which included the following defense of the concept of nullification while restating the intent of the Tenth Amendment:
“. . .where powers are assumed which have not been delegated, a nullification of the act is the rightful remedy: that every State has a natural right in cases not within the compact, (casus non faederis) to nullify of their own authority all assumptions of power by others within their limits: that without this right, they would be under the dominion, absolute and unlimited, of whosoever might exercise this right of judgment for them . . .”
Jefferson’s visceral disdain for the notion of an all-powerful central government, fearing a reestablishment, under the right circumstances, of a tyrannical form of rule, insisted on emphasizing the authorities of the states to reject decrees or acts emanating from that central government that they deemed unconstitutional. The earlier ratification of the Tenth Amendment, and Jefferson’s assertions of the legitimacy of the doctrine of nullification, however, did not resolve the debate regarding states’ rights. In fact,...
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