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Virginia & Kentucky Resolutions Lesson for Kids

Instructor: Jenny Homer

Jenny has masters' degrees in public health and public administration.

There have been times in U.S. history when the power of the federal government has been questioned by the states. The passing of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions were due to exactly that reason. In this lesson, find out who wrote the Resolutions and why.

Who Has the Power?

What do you do if something happens that you believe is wrong? Do you stay quiet or speak up? In 1798, the United States federal government passed a set of laws known as the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison believed that it was unconstitutional for Congress to pass these laws because it exceeded the power given to them in the Constitution. Jefferson and Madison chose to speak up and the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions were the result.

Thomas Jefferson
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Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798

Let's look at what was happening in the United States at this time. The U.S. was still a new country; the Constitution had only been ratified and in effect for ten years, and there were still a lot of questions about what power the federal government should have.

The United States and France were not getting along and some thought there would be a war. Concerned by this threat of war and potential disloyalty of those living in the U.S., President John Adams and Congress passed a set of four laws - The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. There are two main parts to these laws:

  • Three of the laws were about aliens, who are foreigners or someone from another country. The government was afraid that someone from France living in the United States would help the French in a war. If there was a war, these laws allowed the president to jail, or even deport, send back to their own country, non-citizens.
  • Under the Sedition Act, any person could be punished or sent to jail for writing or saying something bad about the government.

The Sedition Act of 1798
Sedition Act

The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions

In response to the Alien and Sedition Acts, James Madison wrote the Virginia Resolution and Thomas Jefferson wrote the Kentucky Resolutions (one in 1798 and one in 1799). These resolutions did not have the same wording, but their main ideas were the same:

  • The Sedition Act violates the First Amendment right to free speech.
  • The Constitution gives the federal government only certain powers and if that power is not specifically given to the federal government, then that power remains with the states.
  • States have the right to say whether or not a law passed by the federal government is constitutional and therefore, states have the right to determine whether or not to enforce that law.
  • The federal government did not have the power to pass the Alien and Sedition Acts, and therefore the laws are unconstitutional.

James Madison
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