Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions

Responses to the Alien and Sedition Acts

Image of Thomas Jefferson by Charles Wilson Peale, 1791.
Thomas Jefferson, 1791. Credit: Library of Congress

Definition: These resolutions were written by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in response to the Alien and Sedition Acts. These resolutions were the first attempts by states rights advocates to impose the rule of nullification. In their version, they argued that since the government was created as a compact of the states, they had the right to ‘nullify’ laws that they felt exceeded the granted power of the Federal government.

The Alien and Sedition acts were passed while John Adams was serving as America's second president. Their purpose was to fight against criticisms people were making against the government and more specifically the Federalists. The Acts consist of four measures designed to limit immigration and free speech. They include:

  • The Naturalization Act - This act increased the residency time for individuals applying for U.S. citizenship. Immigrants would have to live in the US for 14 years in order to be eligible for citizenship. Previous to this, the requirement was 5 years. The reason for this act was that America was in danger of going to war with France. This would give the president the ability to better deal with suspicious foreign nationals. 
  • The Alien Act - Following the passage of the Naturalization Act, the Alien Act continued to give more power to the presidency over foreign nationals living in the U.S. The president was given the ability to deport aliens during peacetime.
  • The Alien Enemy Act - A little less than a month later, President Adams signed this Act into law. The purpose of the Alien Enemy Act was to give the president the ability to expel or imprison aliens during times of declared war if those aliens had ties to America's enemies. 
  • The Sedition Act - The final act, passed on July 14, 1798, was the most controversial. Any conspiracy against the government including riots and interference with officers would result in a high misdemeanor. This went so far as to stop people from speaking in a "false, scandalous and malicious" manner against the government. Newspaper, pamphlet and broadside publishers who printed articles aimed primarily at his administration were the intended targets.

    The backlash to these acts was probably the main reason why John Adams was not elected to a second term as president. The Virginia Resolutions, authored by James Madison, argued that Congress was overstepping their bounds and using a power not delegated to them by the Constitution. The Kentucky Resolutions, authored by Thomas Jefferson, argued that states had the power of nullification, the ability to nullify federal laws. This would later be argued by John C. Calhoun and the southern states as the Civil War neared. However, when the topic came up again in 1830, Madison argued against this idea of nullification. 

    In the end, Jefferson was able to use the reaction to these acts to ride to the presidency, defeating John Adams in the process. 

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    Kelly, Martin. "Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions." ThoughtCo, Dec. 1, 2015, thoughtco.com/kentucky-and-virginia-resolutions-103997. Kelly, Martin. (2015, December 1). Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/kentucky-and-virginia-resolutions-103997 Kelly, Martin. "Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/kentucky-and-virginia-resolutions-103997 (accessed December 11, 2017).