The idea of nullification has been gaining attention and momentum in recent years. My own awareness of nullification, the idea that the states have the constitutional right to block federal enforcement of unconstitutional acts, was originally almost wholly due to the work of historian Thomas Woods, whose book Nullification came out in 2010. As great as that book was, Woods’ work was preceded by six years by another author who offered the first book-length treatment of nullification in 100 years.
In 2004, William Watkins’ released his book, Reclaiming the American Revolution. Watkins, an attorney who specializes in constitutional law, begins by taking the reader through the events that led to the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions of 1798, authored by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison respectively. These resolutions were in response to the Alien and Sedition Acts, a series of unconstitutional laws passed earlier in 1798.
After laying out the historical background for the Acts, Watkins discusses some of the ways that they were used, mostly to shut down opposition to President John Adams and his Federalist party. The most notable instance of prosecution under the Acts was that of Benjamin Franklin Bache who, besides being the grandson of Benjamin Franklin, was also a journalist who used his newspaper to criticize the Federalists. Bache’s story is tragic in that he was arrested under the Sedition Act and, while awaiting trial, died of yellow fever. Other stories of prosecution under the Acts, while not as tragic, are equally as troubling.
With this context for Jefferson and Madison’s Resolutions, Watkins lays out the legal and philosophical case that they used for the so-called Principles of ’98. The key concept here is what Watkins calls dual legislative sovereignty, which is the idea that the ultimate sovereigns in the American system, the people, have delegated some of their sovereignty to the government. However, in order to diffuse power and guard against governmental power grabs, the people have delegated certain powers to the national government and others to the state governments. Since central governments have the tendency to grow at the expense of the rights of the people, the duty of stopping that growth falls to the state governments.
After discussing the philosophy and legality of the Resolutions, Watkins dives back into the history of the Principles of ’98, both their immediate impact and how they were used over the next six decades by different states (here’s a quick spoiler: they weren’t always used by the South and, in fact, Northern states used them to fight against slavery). As Watkins nears the end of the book he discusses how the abandonment of the principles has paved the way for the growth in government to the size it is today.
Watkins concludes his book by calling for Americans to rediscover the Principles of ’98 and embrace federalism. “For true change to take place,” Watkins says, “Americans must reacquaint themselves with the fundamental principle of the (American) Revolution: the right of self-government. We must remember that our revolutionary forefathers fought…for the right to govern themselves via state and local assemblies.”
In calling for Americans to rediscover these principles, Watkins quotes Jefferson: “The spirit of 1776 is not dead. It has only been slumbering. (The American people’s) virtuous feelings have been played on by some fact with more fiction; they have been the dupes of artful maneuvers, and made for a moment to be the willing instruments in forging chains for themselves.”
Through this book Watkins has shed light on a way for us to break the chains that we have forged for ourselves. I recommend this book highly, especially as a companion to Woods’ work.