Nullification: How to Resist Federal Tyranny in the 21st Century
by Thomas Woods
The Constitution was established to create a federal government that would unite the several states while limiting its powers. But this immediately leads to the problem of how violations of the Constitution by the federal government can be resisted. In this book, Thomas Woods argues for the obscure but storied principle of Nullification.
The basic idea of nullification is that the states should formally resist unconstitutional laws. They are the partners that created the federal government, so if the federal government violates the restrictions on its actions, the states have no duty to comply. Indeed, they must resist. The federal judiciary could not be the appropriate remedy since it is part of the federal government and so naturally biased toward it.
Thomas Jefferson is primarily responsible for developing the principle of nullification. It dates to the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. The acts were designed by the Federalists to weaken the Democrats. The Sedition Act was definitely unconstitutional, and the Democrats believed that the Alien Acts were as well.
In Response, Jefferson drafted the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions of 1798. These resolutions laid out the basic principles of nullification. These resolutions were passed by the Democrat-dominated legislatures of these states. They succeeded in helping to resist these acts, which came to an end when the Democrats came to power in Washington in 1800. These resolutions became known as the Principles of '98.
Woods lays out the case that the Constitution really does limit federal power. He refutes expansive interpretations based on the general welfare clause, commerce clause, necessary and proper clause, and the "living constitution". This material should be familiar to well-read conservatives.
After explaining the origin of the Principles of '98, Woods explains their relevance throughout the 1800s. Ironically, New England cited the principles against President Jefferson due to his poorly conceived trade embargo protesting the seizure of American ships during the Napoleonic Wars. They were favorably referenced by Northern states in the subsequent years. They were used by South Carolina in 1832-33 to help resist restrictive tariff policies backed by President Jackson. They were used by Wisconsin in 1859 to resist the Fugitive Slave Law. Woods is pained to point out that they were never used to defend slavery.
Woods then explains the origin of America, advocating the compact view that the states began as separate colonies, then separate countries, which united with the Articles of Confederation and then the Constitution. He refutes the nationalist theory that the states were somehow united from the beginning, implying that the federal government is the supreme authority over the entire country.
Woods explains how nullification is used today, from medical marijuana to the REAL ID act and firearms freedom acts. In the final chapter, he discusses various ways of officially enshrining nullification in the Constitution. These include a constitutional amendment (not going to happen) and constitutional convention (extremely dangerous). This is the weakest section of the book.
Readers should be aware that about half the book consists of historical documents. These begin with the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions themselves and include later resolutions and commentaries on nullification.
Overall, this is an important, if somewhat basic book on a little-explored but vital issue. It is recommended to interested readers.
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