Doctrine of Nullification: Definition & Theory

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  • 0:00 The Doctrine Of Nullification
  • 1:27 Genesis Of Nullification
  • 2:46 Nullification…
  • 3:21 Legacy Of Nullification
  • 4:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Adam Richards

Adam has a master's degree in history.

The Doctrine of Nullification is the inherent right of a state to override the federal government. Learn more about the theory of nullification and how it was applied over the course of United States history.

The Doctrine of Nullification

Imagine if there was an instance where a power higher than yourself established a measure that was unfavorable toward you or a group of people. What if you could terminate that measure? We do not have to imagine; we can simply look at history. The notion of termination, or nullification, did exist. Let's see how it was applied throughout the history of the United States.

The Doctrine of Nullification suggested that states residing within the Union have the unilateral, inherent (natural, undocumented) right to void any law created by the federal government that could be deemed unconstitutional. The United States was formed on the basis of a general consensus among its individual states. Therefore, it is implied that under the theory of nullification, since the states are the foundation of the Union, they have the power to arbitrate and refute unconstitutional laws. Simply put, the states were believed to have the final say.

It is extremely important that you understand the difference between nullification and a legal challenge to the constitutionality of laws. The nullification doctrine maintained that the states have the right to overrule any unconstitutional laws, with the decision being unchallenged by any federal entity. A legal suit against an unconstitutional law is heard before the Supreme Court, with a decision being rendered. Nullification removes power from the Supreme Court and federal government.

Genesis of Nullification

The nullification doctrine was never written into the United States Constitution. In fact, there is no mention of it in any of the major legal documents, such as the Constitution, Constitutional Convention Papers, or Federalist Papers, that define the structure of the federal government. The first appearance and use of nullification surfaced during the 1790s.

During that period, the United States was embroiled in a conflict with France, called the XYZ affair, which resulted in the Quasi War. Congress moved to pass a number of wartime-related measures, known as the Alien and Sedition Acts, that affected not only French immigrants, but established domestic laws that curbed opposition and required strict obedience and loyalty to the federal government under the threat of imprisonment. James Madison and Thomas Jefferson quickly responded by issuing the Kentucky and Virginia Resolves.

These documents charged the federal government with a gross misuse of power that superseded the powers reserved for the government in the Constitution. Both men, in their respective documents, contended that the Alien and Sedition Acts violated the first amendment. Since the government had allegedly abused its power, the states had the right to nullify the acts. Unfortunately, support for the nullification of the Alien and Sedition Acts was limited, and both the Kentucky and Virginia Resolves fell into obscurity.

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