Reassessing Responses to the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions: New Evidence from the Tennessee and Georgia Resolutions and from Other States
Abstract

Abstract:

The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, which headed the Republican attack on the Alien and Sedition Acts, are almost always described as being “rebuffed by all the other states” so that “none of the other fourteen state legislatures followed” in “declaring the Alien and Sedition Acts unconstitutional.” That is puzzling, since Madison’s and Jefferson’s resolutions are also generally regarded as the opening shots of the election of 1800, in which by contrast the Republicans were far from rebuffed or rejected.

That conventional description, besides being puzzling, is false. This article revisits the legislative journals, manuscript evidence, and period newspapers for each of the other states, and concludes that only half the sixteen states opposed the resolutions, while fully half of the sixteen states either supported or did not oppose the resolutions. It finds that Virginia and Kentucky received the support they requested through overlooked Tennessee and Georgia Resolutions (which called for repeal of the Alien and Sedition Acts), and that legislatures divided in two states, while legislatures chose not to oppose the resolutions in the remaining two states. These findings, based on original research, challenge the conventional view of the abject failure of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, and of their rejection by the other states.

There are many broader implications of an accurate view of the reception of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, which challenge conventional views about constitutional theories of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson in the Resolutions, about their expansive view of freedoms of press and speech being newly formulated, and about the Republican interest being undeveloped and far from a coordinated political party.