Transition Politics and the National Policy System from 1793 to 1800: Effects on Economic Development

Washington, Hamilton and the core Federalist Tribe had attempted during Washington’s First Administration to build the capacity for a strong, aggressive, federal role in economic development. This nation-building institutionalization, however, the Public Credit and National Bank particularly, had upon approval fractured the Federalist Tribe consensus, causing the emergence of a rival ideological tribe, the Democrat-Republicans, and a national policy system whose policy-making processes were wracked by legislative disruption, increasing partisan polarization, and brutal personal politics often conducted through and with the various elements of the 1790 mass media. As the reader might imagine, national leadership in economic development became a highly contested affair, increasingly transferred to state/local politics and policy systems.

Hotly contested and intensely partisan, the institutionalization of public credit and the establishment of state-level commercial banks diffused through each of the states. In that sense, federal level financial institutionalization was successful-the fabric of a national economy had been put in place. The rationale, motivation, and even the operations of state banks in particular, however varied by the state, and the reader should be sensitive that even called by the same name, the state bank was not uniform throughout the nation. Central to economic development in that state, the state state bank over time promoted and laid the groundwork for a distinct economic development path for that state. Despite the existence of a National Bank (with branch offices in several states), the states were fully engaged in developing their own economic development-relevant policy system, with many states actively competing with the approach taken by the National Bank. In many states, the National Bank was not only seen as a rival–but as an intruder–and a player in state politics. Highly disruptive, economic development institutionalization was in the center of a contentious, often polarized state and sometimes local policy system. The scars, otherwise known as the legacy of this period still reverberates through the pages of our current ED history. But there is no escaping the reality that increasingly as the years passed, more and more of economic development, both MED and CD occurred at the state level, and that the national government played a secondary, at certain periods, almost no role in ED–aside from activities and strategies, such as tariff and international/global export/import over which the feds were inherently dominant. From this point on states followed their own path, the essentials of which differed dramatically across the different regions of the nation.

This dynamic, however, was far from the only major dynamic witnessed during this transition period. In surprisingly subtle ways, the devolution of economic development from the federal government to the States was aided and abetted by the increasing priority afforded by the federal government, necessarily and justifiably, to national defense and foreign policy. Where economic development ranked on the federal policy agenda is less the issue than the reality that whatever was called economic development often was justified and made to serve the purposes of national defense, or pushed around the exigencies of foreign policy and the conduct of foreign actors. The opposing sides in the national debate wasted no time in “identifying” with warring countries, and since the two warring countries most relevant to the United States, Britain and France, each possessed a radically different form of government–France was in the midst of the French Revolution, which after 1795 increasingly was taken over by a Napoleonic dictatorship–bitterly opposed by a “democratic, but aristocratic  Britain.

The two conducted what can only be described as a twenty year World War–in which we were inevitably caught in its crosshairs. We would not escape that World War, however, much we tried. In 1812 we joined with France in the War of 1812, somehow mercifully escaping the consequences of the French defeat at Waterloo. Amazingly, in this tumultous period, several interactions (think Louisiana Purchase and Embargoes) with the warring countries resulted in huge, and profound implications on economic development and set the state the stage for future critical national, state and local economic development strategies. In many ways, the intercontinental expansion of the United States, and the development of an immense and innovative manufacturing economic base was made possible by events, consequences (intended or otherwise) and controversies of this transition period. One can with considerable justification say the United States was not a true and self-sufficient independent nation until it had passed through this incredible, yet amazingly little known period of our history.

Nevertheless a succession of foreign policy crises sucked the air out of federal-level politics and deepened the political polarization. The French Revolution gradually moved away from constitutionalism, toward more radical Jacobin political leadership during 1792 which arrested the King and his family, causing Lafayette to free his homeland, and became more affected by the Paris Commune–Jefferson was cautious but tolerant of this trend, but not so Washington and most Federalists. Freneau in his National Gazette printed little other than favorable fluff pieces about the French. By September massacres were occurring in Paris. In early January 179, the first battles of the World War were fought–French victories. In the same month Louis XVI was condemned to death and executed.

As France radicalized, England, entering the war war with France in March 1793, turned even more hostile and distant toward the United States. From this point on, foreign politics never released its hold on public opinion and skewed the attention of political actors. The Americans issued a Proclamation of Neutrality. The Citizen Genet episode, which lingered for some time, was the first of a series of serious foreign policy intrusion on American national policy. In the midst of Genet Jefferson resigned as Secretary of State effective December 31st, 1793. By this time, the Democrat-Republicans had taken control of both houses of Congress–and had vigorously identified with the French. Freneau was now attacking Washington personally, and Jefferson began blogging as “Pacificus”. In late summer 1794, however, events in western Pennsylvania refocused the Washington administration and turned its attention once again to domestic issues, the preservation of a major source of revenue central to sustenance of a strong national government: the whiskey tax.

the Whiskey Rebellion

The Whisky Tax (an excise tax on the sale of whiskey) was central to Hamilton’s Public Credit legislation. Various excise taxes had been approved early in 1791 to diversify the revenue base of the national government, away from tariffs and customs duties, and which would provide additional revenues supportive of a range of federal policy involvements. The whiskey tax was controversial from the start–and likely Hamilton knew it would be–he had seen Morris try this tax in the latter’s earlier efforts to provide revenues to the Articles.coffers. The issue was whiskey was more than a sin tax or a simple sales tax on a single product. Whiskey was a commodity that (1) offered a secondary income for hinterland farmers–a sort of second job; (2) it was also a currency–i.e. a transportable product that could serve as collateral for purchases at the village store, or an item for barter in the agricultural “sharing” economy; finally, whiskey was exportable to cities and even abroad, creating a network of logistics and trading entities. Whiskey was made throughout the western counties of North Carolina, Virginia and Pennsylvania.

From 1792 onward periodic protests erupted and were a chronic concern of Federalists in Congress. It was in the western Pennsylvania counties, the home base of the opposition Morris had encountered in his post-1785 Bank of North American-Pennsylvania populist Legislature struggle, that was the most restive. By 1794 the Democrat-Republicans had picked up the issue, supporting the protesters–and the issue even drew inspiration from Citizen Genet who was attacking Washington’s Federalists as aristocrats and pro-British–neither popular in the hinterlands.Indeed, in April 1794 none other than Washington himself had received a ” i.e. a remonstrance”, i.e. a formal petition from a group calling itself the the Democratic Society of the County of Washington (PA In June 1794–the heart of the evolving whiskey insurgency. These Democratic Societies were forming across the nation, more or less spontaneously. They directly tapped and drew from the heritage of the Sons of Liberty, focusing on “equal rights” ,freedoms associated with the Bill of Rights, and the diffusion of knowledge (public education). They directly challenged social and political hierarchies, and brought together the several classes of merchants, farmers, tradesmen and workers. The overlap with their views and agenda with those of Jefferson were massive.  While he did not cause these societies to form, the overlap in their message and populist themes  transformed the societies into instruments of the newly-crystallizing Democratic Republican Tribe. [see William Hogeland, The Whiskey Rebellion: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and the Frontier Rebels who challenged America’s Newfound Sovereignty(Scribner, 2006), pp. 137-141

The first arguably was in Philadelphia in April 1793, and organized by a soon-to-be prominent Democrat-Republican Peter Muhlenberg. At least thirty five were formed by 1795. They met monthly and as the Democrat-Republican Tribe formalized after Jefferson’s break with Hamilton, Washington and the Federalists, they became important elements of the the Tribe’s election campaigns. A major issue identified with these societies was their extreme dislike of the British, and their fascination, if not admiration for all things French. They were very receptive to Genet’s message, and Genet’s efforts, to move the United States away from Washington’s formal neutrality to an active alliance with France. Most of these societies were urban, but three had formed in Pennsylvania’s western counties. [see elkins & mckitrick and Sean Wilentz, the Rise of American Democracy from Jefferson to Lincoln (2005) Schoenbachler, Mathew “Republicanism in the Age of Democratic Revolution: the Democratic Republican Societies of the 1790’s, the Journal of the Early Republic, Vol 18, No. 2, 1968 (JSTOR)

Congress eased back on the tax, made payment of it a bit easier, and turned enforcement over to the states. That didn’t work apparently. In August 1794 over 7,000 protesters gathered on Braddock Field outside of Pittsburgh–the scene of Washington’s heroic involvement in Braddock’s 1854 defeat in the French-Indian War.

As they had nearly a decade before, these western counties started talking about succession–as Kentuckians were also. Using the guillotine as a symbol or metaphor, they demanded even more political rights, and seemingly believed themselves to be implementing the aims of the French Revolution. The Rebellion spread to western Maryland, and Kentucky. Tax collectors were attacked–and protesters began to demand the federal arsenal in western Maryland be seized for weapons–and the Shays Rebellion rebels had actually attempted in 1786. To outsiders, even to folk like Washington himself, this Whiskey Rebellion looked to be a replay of Shays. Washington asked the Democrat-Republican Governor of Pennsylvania if the state militia could be used to calm the rebellious counties–the fear was the use of the federal army would play into the fears that had become a key motivator for the rise of the Democrat-Republican Tribe. The Governor, Thomas Mifflin, would have nothing to do with Washington’s request.

So a few days after the big Braddock Field protest, on August 14th 1794, the President mobilized the militias of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and New Jersey–forming an army that initially totaled about 13,000 soldiers. In no time, the army, formally commanded by Virginia Governor Henry Lee was joined by Washington himself. That stirred the patriotic juices of all Americans–forcing Democrat-Republicans, including Mifflin to shift to support Washington’s position. In the midst of all of this Mad Anthony Wayne  decisively beat “the largest Indian army ever assembled on the continent”, a unified force armed and motivated by British officers who were embedded with the various Indian tribes. The Battle of Fallen Timbers, near Toledo in the upper Miami valley, cast a decidedly strange tenor–inspiring Washington’s nationalized state militia army whjle the anti-British Whiskey Rebellion protesters identified with the dissident Native Americans. The hinterland protesters radicalized still further–putting aside the whiskey tax and demanding instead the overthrow of the state government, particularly its judicial and tax systems. The Rebellion spread even to the suburbs of Philadelphia–and it had become an masses versus elite movement, as had the Stamp Act and the North Carolina 1770 War of Regulation.

Washington attempted some negotiation with the protester’s leadership. By late Fall the protesters were more amendable to compromise–fearing the army would pillage as well as put down the rebellion. Both Washington and the protesters feared the oncoming winter, for different reasons: winter would make a military campaign all the more difficult, and the destruction of farms and feeding of the troops would leave the region unable to feed itself. Because Congress was about to resume its session, Washington left to return to Philadelphia, leaving the army to the “supervision” of recently retired Alexander Hamilton, now Washington’s second-in-command. Washington then gave his traditional “address to Congress, a speech dominated by his comments on the Whiskey Rebellion (November 19th). That transfer of leadership to Hamilton, however, was music to the Democrat-Republican ears. The author of the whiskey tax, and the chief proponent of public credit and national bank was now commanding the federalized militia as it marched into the rebellious counties.

The resistance encountered by Hamilton was minimal, almost symbolic. Most of the activist protesters simply fled the region, and relocated further west in other states. About 150 were formally arrested–most took a loyalty oath and were eventually released. Twenty men were charged with treason; two were convicted–and Washington pardoned both.

The reaction in Congress, however, was more impactful. The Rebellion by this time was not only a replay of the Shays anti-elite affair, but was also cast in the shades thrown by the French Revolution and the discord caused by the Citizen Genet affair. The Federalists in the Senate rallied to the President’s support; to many Senators it seemed the rebellion had been fueled by “outside agitators” members of Citizen’s Genet’s local chapters of his Democratic Societies movement. Indeed, Washington in his report to Congress cited these societies as a key cause of the rebellion inspired by “certain self-created societies”. [p.202 the Great Divide) who condemned the federal government and urged intimidation of “federal officers”. That speech motivated Jefferson to mount his high horse, publicly Jefferson said that Washington’s denunciation of the Democratic Societies was “one of the most extraordinary acts of boldness of which we have seen so many from the faction of the monocrats”.

In the House of Representatives, where the Democrat-Republicans had a majority, James Monroe declared that Washington’s attack on the Democratic Societies “was his greatest error of his political life” {202]. The Democrat-Republicans took the position that there was no rebellion against the United States, only a protest against the expanding and pernicious power of the federal government into the daily lives of its citizens. To make matters even more interesting, James Monroe in a speech before the French National Assembly gave that revolutionary body an American flag, saying that America “admired the wisdom and firmness” of the French leadership–drawing a critical letter from Washington reminding Monroe America’s formal position was one of neutrality. The profound infusion of polarizing international differences into what had arguably been the most serious domestic insurgency since 1776–and the steepest populist challenge to a strong federal government–contains overtone not inappropriate to 2019.

The passionate love affair with the French Revolution that Thomas Jefferson had contracted [while] in Paris was [still] alive in his own mind and heart–and in the minds and hearts of James Madison and James Monroe and tens of thousands of other members of the Democrat-Republican Party. They seethed with rage about the way President Washington had turned the Whiskey Rebellion into a political triumph … Even more infuriating was the President’s demolition of the Democratic Societies [p. 204]

The Vicious Spiral Toward Polarization and Partisanship: Federalists Cross the Line

By 1796, the last year of Washington’s second term, there were two warring Tribes: Federalist and Democrat-Republican. Jefferson was the acknowledged leader of the latter, and Madison was his second-n-command. Democrat-Republicans could be found in every state, weakest overall in New England, strongest in the South–and powerful in the western counties of each state. Most non-New England states contained active, aggressive and demonstrative urban factions that were quite capable of electing adherents to the municipal and state legislatures. New York’s and Pennsylvania’s governors were Democrat-Republicans. The fiction of our Founding Fathers being overwhelmingly Federalist had by that time been shattered–as was the momentum behind the installation, or imposition of its Articles derived policy agenda lost. Federalists were able in this period to hold onto majorities in Congress, both houses, but when Washington declined a third term–as was evident he would, the charisma, unity and ethos of the Federalist Tribe disintegrated. The personality of its chief leader that emerged from the pack, John Adams, sealed any hope of the Federalists regaining its first term momentum.

This being a history focused on economic development, our hope is not to wander into the weeds and fields of a general history. The hope is to demonstrate we had entered into a period in which economic development, while battered to and fro, still exhibiting considerable momentum at both state and local levels, had simply disappeared from the federal agenda. What was happening is that a realignment-like dynamic was driving the policy agenda at the federal level, and that this bettered drift into the realignment left its mark as economic development evolved during these polarized years. The battles fought at the federal level replicated themselves in state legislatures, Congressional elections and where they existed large urban municipal/hinterland governments. New policy systems at the state and local level were being forged, fought over, and in many states/cities one or the other Tribe was assuming dominance–mostly Democrat-Republican outside of New England and South Carolina.

It was the Alien & Sedition Acts that drove Jefferson (Madison) over the their political Rubicon. After mentally and politically breaking with the Federalists in 1791-2, those acts promoted Jefferson and Madison to formalized their opposition into what today we recognize as a political party. Unlike the Federalist Tribe which did not formally construct a party organizational apparatus–nor employ electoral strategies, Jefferson in 1798 believed he had to formalize his faction into an actual political party–similar ironically to the British. Up to that point he had determinedly opposed political parties–thinking them instruments of tyranny, because their internal politics generated “selfish, power-hungry cliques which inevitably violated the public interest”. But to drive the Federalist Tribe out of power–by this time he is describing the Tribe as “a herd of traitors who dreamed of a single and splendid [national] government of an aristocracy, founded on banking institutions and moneyed incorporations {state-chartered corporations] … riding and ruling over the plundered ploughman and beggard yeomanry”–Jefferson needed organization, devoted activists, a formal policy platform, and organization that coordinated electoral campaigns across the several states, and within states as well” [99] Bernard Bailyn, To Begin the World Anew, pp. 56-7. Whether or not the D-R Tribe actually, or eventually became a modern mass-based political party, I leave to others to resolve–but Jefferson/Madison D-R was light years apart from whatever organization possessed by the Federalist Tribe and what we are describing in this section is the emergence of national/state/local policy systems very akin to our modern two-party system. Economic development as a policy area was entering into a truly new, early Republic prototype of a modern policy system. It had taken a decade to evolve from a Founding Fathers Revolutionary War generation Federalist Tribe into a fully fledged full-blooded democratic policy system.

Having said all this, my chief difficulties in this period are two-fold: (1) having earlier described the formation of a Federalist consensus in the late Articles period–which set the federal agenda in Washington’s first administration, we need to do the same for the Anti-Federalists who by the end of Washington’s second term are attempting to define their agenda/consensus; but (2), as intimated earlier the Democrat-Republican order of values and priorities were cemented in politics, civil liberties, individual rights, and the equality, if not primacy, of states with/over the federal government–economic development did not occupy the privileged position it did with the Federalists.

Surprisingly the “content of the Democrat-Republican economic development agenda was not radically different from the Federalists, excepting of course a rather important distinction that the Federalists drew from wealthy elites in coastal port cities, and the Democrat-Republicans from hinterlands, and western territories/counties of the sixteen states in existence at this time. Their economic bases were different: trade,commerce, increasing manufacture versus agriculture (plantation, household, or subsistence/hardscrabble) with minimal finance and focused manufacturing. Both embraced Adam Smith but applied his tenets as they were relevant to their principal economic base. Both Tribes wanted “growth”, but on their own terms and definitions. Most importantly, the battleground during these years was not economic development, in the crosshairs though it might be, but rather the definition of American democracy/governance and individual rights. Nevertheless, caught in my proverbial crosshairs were (1) the paradigmatic developmental transportation infrastructure strategy; (2) the state chartered corporation–the primary EDO of the Era–and the legitimacy of a national bank, and the “definition” of what a state bank could be. Banks, of course, were either federal or state chartered corporations–as they are today.

At its root, the Jeffersonian thrust was political not economic–and that sharply contrasted with the Federalists who were more flexible on their democracy (oligarchy was more what they wanted) but not at all flexible in the drive for a national-led “modern”, urban-centered economic model closely attuned to that of Great Britain-whom they respected and needed for growth, but disliked and most of all feared. With the conveniently-timed French Revolution, the Democrat-Republicans had their “political” model to imitate, albeit its excesses were never embraced by Democrat-Republican leadership–save an important exception, Thomas Jefferson. What D-R’s did share was a near-hatred of Great Britain–they took their Revolutionary War quite seriously. The Federalists were more willing to move on. In Washington’s last two years, and through all of the Adams administration foreign policy dominated everything, from free speech, newspaper freedom, access to the ballot box, and obviously to economic policy.

The United States was/were (this is a pun–see Kentucky-Virginia Resolutions below) formally neutral, but Washington through a highly unpopular treaty with Great Britain was able to keep the British lion from raising havoc with our tender and fragile economy and border areas–giving the perception of a pro-British tilt. The D-R’s on the other hand actively cavorted with the Jacobin governments, as they radicalized and guillotined each other. The arrival of Napoleon whose dominance increased through the Adam’s administration complicated matters, but D-R’s  proved they too had selective memory to ignore realities. Adam’s moved to embargoes, the xyz affair, toward passage of the Alien & Sedition acts designed to restrict the impact of immigration, quash D-R newspapers and fake news (more on that later), and in their wildest moments mobilized an army to resist French invasion (the Quasi-War) and placed Washington and Hamilton in charge of it. Does any of this sound familiar? All of this added fuel I might add to the D-R fireplace.

So international politics and world war between Britain and France–actually France versus Europe (so long as it remained unconquered by France) literally poured into the content of American politics and agenda-setting. The mass media was “weaponized” probably to the level we see today–and personalistic attacks, fake news, and simplistic zombie-like activist bases could be stirred up with a newspaper blog, rumor from a new-comer or visitor, or an activist core that wandered around drinking whiskey instead of smoking cannabis et al.. Times do change after all. In this charming atmosphere sympathy for either the British or French model translated into either the imposition of the Federalist version of capitalism or sheer opposition to it by D-R’s who equated it with monarchy, wealthy elites profiteering, and lifestyle, heritage and tradition threatening. The D-R’s therefore fell neatly into our definition of populist–multi-class, multi-ethnic/race, trans-geography, and bi-polar with a “left and right” spectrum. The Federalists for the most part saw the D-R’s in populist terms, as deplorables (the mob is what they called them), and attached to them nearly all the qualifiers, ranging from education to social status, that are fashionable as I write. Much enlightened debate and discussion followed, with highly educated and totally ignorant especially distinguishing themselves. The less said about the mass media, the better. From my vantage point of two hundred years, each side saw itself as vulnerable, threatened, and buffeted by forces they could not control–and a new global system was in the making, complete with a new global politics and global economic order. It was a transition politics driven by perceived and real fears made all the more threatening by the perceived vulnerability of adherents of both feuding Tribes. Global system change seems to have that effect on internal domestic politics.


Out of the wonderful melange of dynamics and politics described above, I have selected one episode for special emphasis: the Virginia-Kentucky Resolutions. I have done so for the following reasons: (1) while the forerunner of more serious events it’s impact on national and state policy-making proved fundamental, carrying economic development in its wake; (2) it selects out an enduring distinction between our two ships of economic development: states-centered or national-led economic development; (3) it proved to be the launch issue that led to the great realignment of 1800 election; and (4) it allows a segue way to introduce to the reader to themes which will consume our attention as we go forward: western trans-Appalachian migration, settlement and state-building.

the Kentucky–Virginia Resolutions

On November 16, 1798, eleven years following the September 1787 approval of the Constitution by the Constitutional Convention, the Kentucky state legislature approved its first resolution in opposition to Congressional approval of the Federalist legislation collectively known as the Alien and Sedition Acts. The Kentucky Resolution was quickly followed by one from Virginia, December 24th of the same year. There were more resolutions to follow but these resolutions were the opening shot, the Fort Sumter attack if you will, against federal dominance and leadership of policy-making over the states. As such it is the formal birth of what we know as “states rights”; they constitute an interpretation of the “supremacy clause/Article VI (later to be re-clarified by John Marshal in his landmark 1819 decision, McCullough v. Maryland–a generation in the future).

An obvious harbinger of an intensifying crisis that would lead directly to the Civil War , these Acts simply and bluntly asserted that states  (collectively) possessed the right to declare federal legislation “null and void”, or as termed in the Virginia Resolution “interposition by the States” when such federal legislation exceeded the enumerated powers of the federal government as specified in the Constitution. Both resolutions DID NOT ASSERT an individual state had such a right, but collectively the states could demand Congressional reconsideration and repeal of the offending legislation. Each resolution asked the other state legislatures to take a position on the whether the Alien & Sedition Acts exceeded the enumerated powers of the federal government–and hence were unconstitutional. Fundamental to the Resolutions was the notion the United States was formed by a “compact” of states–implying ultimate or at least primeval sovereignty of states over the federal government. Federalists countered the federal union was indeed a compact, but a compact of the “people”, not states.  As we know the Civil War put an end to the former notion. Might always is Right, but …. the tension lives on

The Kentucky Resolution was (secretly) written by Thomas Jefferson; the Virginia Resolution by James Madison. One might remember Thomas Jefferson was the current Vice-President.

The resolutions were intended to repeal the Alien & Sedition Acts, but also served as the first nationwide attack of the new-founded Democrat-Republican Tribe’s in the forthcoming 1800 election. States rights was regarded as a cornerstone of their electoral platform, and they hoped to harness the huge, widespread negative reaction against the Acts, fueled over 1799 by various actions, arrests, trials carried out by John Adams and the federalist-dominated courts. Defense of freedom of the press and the rights of individual free speech–and defense of immigrant political rights which had been curtailed by the Aliens Act [1 below]–were the centerpiece of D-R attack. In the minds of Jefferson and Madison the assertion of states rights to compel a Congressional review of the offending legislation tapped into a serious, i.e. widespread national concern that would elicit considerable electoral support in their forthcoming political campaign. It is worth note that in Jefferson’s original draft of the Kentucky Resolution, he asserted the right of a state to secede–but he crossed it out.

It did–they would sweep to victory in 1800, throw out Adams and the Federalists, takeover both Houses of Congress–never relinquishing control until 1828. For the next thirty years, the values and concerns expressed in these resolutions served as more than speed bumps slowing down any legislation that was perceived to have departed from a strict reading of federal–Congressional enumerated powers. The definition and rationale of “implied powers” used to legitimize the Public Credit & Debt and National Bank legislation by Hamilton, Washington and the Federalist Congressional Tribe had effectively been repudiated. In that these offending legislation involved nation-building institutionalization of profound relevance to economic development–and federal leadership in economic development–these acts would lead to the closing of the brief Federalist dominance in our ED history. The Resolutions mark the opening verses in a new chapter in our history– a chapter characterized by limited, restrained federal involvement in economic development at all levels of government prompted by a torturous ambivalence of how far, and in what policy areas, federal enumerated powers could be applied. Both Jefferson and Madison in particular, less so Monroe, had to reconcile the intent of these resolutions with the imperatives of national governance in a hostile, and eventually war-torn environment–but that is another story. From our perspective, from this point on the unquestioned primacy of the federal government was officially over–and any promise of a predominantly federally-led economic development agenda was destined to be unfulfilled–the Holy Grail of those who were to inherit the Federalist DNA.

Today’s textbooks correctly observe the Resolutions effectively went nowhere. Many state legislatures were dominated by the Federalist Tribe. The D-R’s were still in their initial organizing period and the Resolutions were an opening attack to further that organizing, and so most legislatures did not join with Kentucky and Virginia. Georgia and Tennessee essentially did; three states formally rejected the Resolutions. Most of the states either were so disrupted by internal debate they took no formal position–and many, probably appropriately, felt the courts system, the Supreme Court especially, was a better process for any overturn of potentially unconstitutional federal legislation. Washington’s reaction (in retirement at Mount Vernon) to the Resolutions energized the fragmented Federalist forces–he wrote the Anti-Federalist and his arch-enemy Patrick Henry (Governor of Virginia) that if “systematically and pertinaciously pursued, they would dissolve the Union or produce coercion [war-repression] [99] See William Watkins, “Reassessing Responses to the Virginia & Kentucky Resolutions“, Journal of Early Republic, Vol. 35, No. 4 (Winter, 2015), pp. 519-51. and his Reclaiming the American Revolution (2004). Alexander Hamilton, commander of the American Quasi-War army, suggested the army should be moved to Virginia “on some obvious pretext to act upon the laws and put Virginia to the Test of [its] resistance“.

The reaction of the various states invited a further refinement of Jefferson and Madison’s position. In 1799 Kentucky passed a second Resolution, again written by Jefferson, that clarified the previous Resolution. He stated “That the several states who formed [the Constitution], being sovereign and independent, have the unquestionable right to judge of its infraction; and That a nullification, by these sovereignties, of all unauthorized acts done under the color of that instrument, is the rightful remedy”. He DID NOT, however, go the one step further and assert that an individual state  could refuse to enforce the provisions of the Alien & Sedition Act, also stating “Kentucky will bow to the laws of the Union but would continue to oppose in a Constitutional manner … [that the Resolution} was a solemn protest” against the Acts. This, in my opinion, is typical Jefferson. He is on both sides of the issue: states have the right to nullify federal action; they just can’t do it. Go Figure. In January 1800, however, the Virginia General Assembly passed the Report of 1800 (written by Madison) which affirmed states have a right to declare a federal action is unconstitutional–an expression of opinion without legal effect, but to mobilize public opinion and elicit cooperation from other states. The Courts Madison argued were the proper place to resolve the dispute. Madison did, however, reassert the Constitution was a compact of states–and that restricted the ability of the federal courts which cannot remove powers from the states. Abridgment of the enumerated powers of the state government, even by the Supreme Court, could be overridden by the States (Wikipedia, drawing from the Report itself).

That proved to be the closing chapter of the Virginia-Kentucky Resolutions.

An interesting aspect of the Virginia-Kentucky Resolutions is that it tapped the “coming of age” of a post-Revolutionary War generation. The Alien & Sedition Acts it seems greatly displeased these young millennials, particularly in the South where the latest and largest wave of immigrants, the Scots-Irish had wound up in the western counties of Pennsylvania through South Carolina–and had  poured into newly-settled territories of Kentucky and Tennessee (Daniel Boone, for example, a former Quaker originated from hinterlands of Philadelphia, Berks County, near Reading). Obviously, the Acts also infuriated Tidewater/Virginia anti-federalist plantation owners and apparently their offspring as well. A young twenty-one old lawyer, and recent Kentucky emigre from a Virginia coastal plantation, upon arrival in Kentucky got caught up in the politics decrying the Alien & Sedition Acts. In a serious of citizen meetings that were held previous to the November state legislative approval of the first Kentucky Resolution, one meeting in the Lexington area drew some prominent budding D-R advocates who “discussed” the Alien & Sedition Acts before a goodly number of the area’s citizens. After the main speaker was done, the crowd demand that one of its own be allowed to speak–and boosted him up forcibly to the speaker’s podium. The young lawyer vigorously supported the D-R anti-Alien & Sedition Act position and did so in a quite charismatic manner, a Beto O’Rourke type of impression. Loud cheers and hurrahs resulted–and so Henry Clay made the first public political speech in his life (1798) [99] Thomas D. Clark, A History of Kentucky (Jesse Stuart Foundation, 1988), p. 108.

In the future, the not-too-distant future like the Hartford Convention, Missouri Compromise’s assertion the federal government had a right to limit the expansion of slavery, Calhoun & Jackson’s Nullification Crisis, the Fugitive Slave Law/Dred Scot, the Compromise of 1850–and Civil War. Currently, we see the implications in “federal mandates”, devolution, complexities of welfare, health care, environmental and business regulation, sanctuary cities, the Sagebrush Revolution, and coalitions of state attorneys general against federal immigration quotas et al. There are more.



[1] There were three Alien Acts. The first amended the 1795 Immigration Act to required fourteen years of residence (instead of five) for citizenship. It also also required five years notice of intent to file for citizenship. The second act permitted the President to deport such aliens as he considered “dangerous” to the nation’s welfare and peace. A third act expanded power of the President during times of war, with additional discretionary power given to the President to deport aliens. A fourth act involved aliens who condemned the current Adams administration while praising France–French newspaper editors and reporters in exile who praised France, condemned Britain and disparaged the Adams Administration.