December 3, 2023

The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions: Republican Opposition to Adams

Author: jaideep.krishnan
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By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph.D., Gettysburg College

The Republicans under Thomas Jefferson were perturbed by the growing attacks on Republicans. They had to take drastic steps to defend themselves. Read on to know what exactly they did.

Sketch of Jefferson, Adams, and other members of the Committee of Five who drafted the Constitution.
Jefferson and Adams were part of the group that had drafted the Constitution, but they found themselves on opposite sides in the Federalist versus Republican tussle. (Image: Everett Collection/Public domain)

The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions

Thomas Jefferson and James Madison secretly drafted their own responses to the Alien and Sedition Acts. These were drawn up in the form of resolutions and adopted anonymously by the Republican-dominated state legislatures of Kentucky and Virginia in November and December of 1798.

These Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions were able to publicly criticize Adams and the Alien and Sedition Acts without much likelihood that either of the legislatures or the anonymous authors were going to be arrested for their efforts.

Both the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions ringingly invoked hallowed republican principles to denounce the Alien and Sedition Acts. Madison declared, “The liberty of conscience and of the press cannot be cancelled, abridged, restrained, or modified by any authority of the United States. Consequently, the Sedition Act ought to arouse universal alarm because it is leveled against the right of freely examining public characters and public measures—it’s aimed at free communication among the people, which has ever been justly deemed the only effectual guardian of every other right. Let these Acts stand.”

Learn more about Thomas Jefferson’s frustration.

Republican Threats of Secession

This is what both sets of resolutions warned: “Let these Acts stand, that it might be necessary for the individual states of the Union to assert the powers they possessed under the Tenth Amendment,”—the very same powers that Thomas Jefferson was convinced Hamilton had abused in creating the Bank of the United States— “and then the states would declare these Acts void and of no force.”

Painting of James Madison.
James Madison (above) had warned of dire consequences if the Alien and Sedition Acts were not repealed. (Image: John Vanderlyn/Public domain)

In other words, states would take it upon themselves to nullify federal legislation. Madison hinted even more darkly that the ultimate remedy might have to be the secession of states from the Federal Union, “since as Virginians,” he said, “we’re determined to sever ourselves from that Union we so much value rather than give up the rights to self government which we have reserved.”

Jefferson and Madison called upon the legislatures of the other states to endorse these resolutions. To their disappointment, none did, and the Federalists in Congress quashed attempts in the fall of 1798 to get the Acts repealed.

This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The End of the Quasi War

Jefferson was not discouraged by this, though, and in fact, he saw in the long view where this eventually was bound to go. In 1798, he was actually more optimistic about the Republican future than at any time since he had left Washington’s cabinet.

“The frenzy over the Quasi War with France would abate,” Jefferson predicted, “and with a little patience, we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolved, and the people recovering their true sight—restoring their government to its true principles.”

As if on cue, the French menace that had been the original rationale for the Alien and Sedition Acts promptly proceeded to disappear. The armies of the French Directory, now commanded by an upstart named Napoleon Bonaparte, had sailed off to Egypt in the summer of 1798 to cut the British lifeline to India. In the process, the British Navy caught the French fleet napping at Aboukir Bay on August 1 and annihilated it, effectively ending the French naval threat to American ships.

From then on, the French Directory was on the road to collapse, and collapse it finally did in the November of 1799, when Bonaparte seized power in a massive coup d’etat.

Learn more about the Napoleonic era.

The Demand for the Repeal of the Alien and Sedition Acts

With the threat of French invasion subsiding, so did the fears of subversion at home. By February of 1799, Congress found itself inundated with petitions demanding the repeal of the Alien and Sedition Acts, and the demobilization of the additional army.

Painting showing French and British ships in night combat in Aboukir Bay.
The Battle of Aboukir Bay, in which the British Navy annihilated the French, ended the French threat to America. (Image: Thomas Luny/Public domain)

Only a renewed demand for war, based upon a new war scare, could have saved the Federalists at this point. Perhaps some other Federalist president might have manufactured just such a crisis, but at this point President Adams stepped in and announced that he intended to reopen the failed negotiations with France; it was a very statesmanlike gesture.

It outraged his fellow Federalists, however; they saw Adams as simultaneously negotiating with the revolutionary great Satan, France, declaring public indulgence for Jacobean principles at home, and perhaps worst of all, bargaining away his party’s one major political asset.

Jefferson’s Win Over Adams

No Federalist was more furious over Adams’s conduct than Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton attempted to mount a campaign in the spring of 1800 to replace Adams on the Federalist ticket for the presidential election that fall. Despite the knowledge that the Republicans would once again run Thomas Jefferson, and that only absolute party unity behind Adams could hope to turn Jefferson back, Hamilton obstructed Adams’s reelection campaign at every turn.

Sure enough, in the fall of 1800, when Jefferson and the Republicans once more challenged Adams and the Federalists, the divided and distracted Federalists crashed.

Jefferson and his vice presidential nominee, Aaron Burr, polled 73 electoral votes, while Adams gathered only 65 electoral votes. For all practical purposes, the Federalist era was over, and the Federalist Party was effectively finished as a political force everywhere except in New England.

Meanwhile, Thomas Jefferson and his Republicans now prepared to step forward and brush aside the 12 years of Federalist rule as a great mistake. They wanted to reorganize the nation on what Jefferson regarded as the ‘true’ principles of virtuous republicanism.

Common Questions About the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions

Q. How did the Republicans oppose the Alien and Sedition Acts?

The Republican-dominated state legislatures of Kentucky and Virginia adopted Resolutions that invoked Republican principles to denounce the Alien and Sedition Acts.

Q. What action did the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions threaten against the Federal government?

The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions threatened to nullify federal legislation. It was also hinted that the ultimate remedy might have to be the secession of states from the Federal Union.

Q. How did the Quasi War with the French end?

The Quasi War ended when the British Navy annihilated the French fleet at Aboukir Bay on August 1, effectively ending the French naval threat to American ships. The French Directory finally collapsed in November of 1799, when Bonaparte seized power in a coup d’etat.

Q. How were the Federalists partly responsible for Jefferson’s successful election campaign?

John Adams’s attempt to reopen negotiations with the French earned Alexander Hamilton’s ire. Hamilton’s obstruction of Adams’s reelection campaign ensured that Jefferson became president.

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Thomas Jefferson and the History of U.S. Foreign Policy

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