Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions: Definition & Summary

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  • 0:02 The Sedition Act
  • 2:16 The Resolutions
  • 3:32 The Impact
  • 4:07 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason McCollom
In this lesson, you'll learn how the penning of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions challenged the constitutionality of the Sedition Act and created the idea of nullification.

The Sedition Act

As Americans in the 21st century, we are accustomed to criticizing, without penalty, politicians and government policy. It's practically an American pastime! In 1798, in response to a law that made denunciation of the government illegal, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison penned the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions. These resolutions argued that such censorship was unconstitutional and that states should have the power to override federal laws.

The controversy began during the heyday of the French Revolution in the late 1790s. As France battled Britain and other European nations, American ships got caught in the crossfire. This led to the so-called Quasi-War between the U.S. and France from 1789-1800, whereby both countries raided each other's vessels in the Atlantic.

The debates surrounding the Quasi-War and U.S. foreign policy towards France created an explosive political atmosphere at home. Those who wanted a stronger response to French depredations and those who sought to avoid a wider war divided the Federalist Party, which was led by President John Adams. The opposing party, the Democratic-Republican Party, led by Thomas Jefferson, supported the French revolutionaries in their fight against Britain.

A fight that broke out on the floor of the capitol best illustrates the ire between the two parties. In the House of Representatives, during an argument over the Quasi-War, Federalist Roger Griswold insulted Democratic-Republican Matthew Lyon's war record. In response, Lyon spit in Griswold's face. The two congressmen then attacked each other and tussled on the floor of the House. As the saying goes, politics is a contact sport.

To temper such bitter conflicts, President Adams helped pass the Sedition Act, which set fines and even prison time for anyone who criticized the government. Several Democratic-Republican editors went to prison for printing malicious statements about the Adams administration. In fact, Matthew Lyon found himself in a jail cell after being convicted of publishing libelous statements about the president. Federalists called him 'Ragged Matt the Democrat.'

The Resolutions

Democratic-Republicans were livid about this blatant violation of the 1st Amendment. Some members of the party wanted to secede from the union, and others contemplated taking up arms against the government. But Thomas Jefferson, in his infinite wisdom, explained, 'This is not the kind of opposition the American people will permit.'

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