Nullification: the test of federal authority over state rights

The debate regarding the nature of the unity of the states of America has yet to find its resolution. There is no doubt that it was the enactment of the American Constitution which consolidated the various states into one federal state. The general conception is that the Constitution bound together the different states indivisibly and insolubly. As the Supreme Court phrased it, what was created was “an indestructible Union, composed of indestructible states.

” Thus, there is a loss of individual state sovereignty and identity as the same is replaced with a singular identity in the form of the federal government. However, such a conclusion does not rest on firm foundations. A review of how the United States came to such a s resolution will reveal why unrest remains as to the validity of the claim. The divide between state and federal sovereignty first emerged through the passing of the alien and sedition acts in the 1790s.

These acts were enacted by the federal government for enforcement in the different states. The need and rationale for either act was questionable. As regards the alien act, the grant of discretion to the President to determine whether a foreign national was a threat to the peace and security of the nation was all encompassing. Moreover, the act gave the President the authority to forgo the established boundaries across states in order to deport any perceived threats – the sufficiency of evidence being determined by no other person than himself.

Meanwhile the sedition act was enacted broadening the scope of previous legislation already providing definitions and penalties for the crime of sedition. The fact of the matter was, there was no urgent situation arising out of some perceived need which would have justified the enactment of new characteristics to the crime of sedition. This brought about the opposition of the alien and sedition act by the State of Virginia. Such opposition was made through a resolution later recognized as a resolution of nullification.

Nullification is a power held by the State to declare as null and void or without effect a specified legislation enacted by the federal government, thus making said law or order unenforceable within its boundaries. This was first seen in the resolution of Virginia wherein they declared the alien and sedition acts as without effect within the boundaries of the State of Virginia. However, this resolution emphasized that the State of Virginia did not wish to separate itself from the federal government and swore to uphold the Constitution ratifying the union of the member states.

The resolution of Virginia was followed by the Kentucky Resolution which voiced out its upholding of the principle behind Virginia’s non-observance of the alien and sedition acts. The State of Kentucky declared that although they did not protest the said acts they were by no means supporting the theory that the federal government had unquestionable sovereignty over the United States. Thus it was that two member states supported the viability of nullification as a means of partially denying the sovereignty of the federal government over State governance.