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calhoun jeffersonJohn Caldwell Calhoun inherited the social and political tradition of his South Atlantic world, confirmed by participation in a community and intermediary institutions that encouraged a republicanism with the moral and philosophical overtones necessary to encourage a just polity and the ethical life. Contrary to the fashionable and persistent maligning of Calhoun as a departure from the republican tradition–especially the republicanism of a Jeffersonian cast–his lifelong dedication to restoring the regime to its “republican simplicity and virtue” found much wise counsel in the political thought of Thomas Jefferson.[1] The promise and perils of comparing Jefferson and Calhoun are legion, although this essay concentrates on the aspect of Jefferson’s thought most influential to Calhoun, the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 and 1799.[2] As Jefferson had faced the crisis posed by President John Adams and the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, Calhoun’s devotion to republican principles also forced his separation from the extremes of the Jacksonian consolidation of all aspects of the regime and the Whig accommodation of “interest group” politics regardless of the costs. Having resolved the nullification crisis through maintaining a commitment to the republican idea of diversified liberty, as well as a spirit of moderation amidst great turmoil, Calhoun could toast the Jefferson of the Kentucky Resolutions as the “true interpreter and faithful advocate” of a still-vibrant American republicanism. According to Calhoun, Thomas Jefferson served as the “Republican Patriarch,” the political thinker who had incorporated the republican understanding of liberty into a theory of federal relationships most conducive to the life of the community and political order.[3]

Regardless of the desire to accentuate the uniformity of Jefferson’s political thinking and to depict the antebellum periods of Southern political theory as “Jeffersonian” and “post-Jefferson,” the obvious utilization of Jefferson by Calhoun identifies the willingness of Americans to accept and complement the essential ambiguities of his thought.[4] Of course, Calhoun concentrated upon the Kentucky Resolutions as representing the core of Jefferson’s conception of republican liberty, even though Democratic and Whig critics disputed Jefferson’s authorship of the works until it was acknowledged publicly in 1821.[5] Further supplementing these earlier revelations, Jefferson’s grandson produced two draft Resolutions in Jefferson’s own handwriting in 1832.[6] Calhoun’s use of the Resolutions connected his concept of republicanism with Jefferson. The political theory embodied in the Kentucky Resolutions was always present in Jefferson’s thought, directly contradicting Calhoun’s critics who have sought to devalue his interpretation by relegating the Resolutions to the status of a “political maneuver” of temporary importance.[7] More importantly, the Kentucky Resolutions remain a vivid witness to Jefferson’s republican notions of liberty as including state responsibility; and the Kentucky Resolutions also provide a useful introduction to this persistent theme in political thought. For example, in the first inaugural address Jefferson could again plead for “the support of the state governments in all their rights, as the most competent administrators for our domestic concerns and the surest bulwarks against anti-republican tendencies.”[8] The states assumed a mediatory role between the people of states and the general government, according to Jefferson. Even in later life Jefferson reiterated the capacity of state responsibility as allowing for a state veto on a limited basis, as in the case of internal improvements.[9] Calhoun argued consistently throughout his public career that an adequate understanding of Jefferson’s political theory necessitated an appreciation of the Kentucky Resolutions as a primary text in the American republican canon. Conversely, in these documents Jefferson provided a means for restoring the regime to its “simple” design of state authority, allowing for “mutual security, and more perfect protection of their liberty and tranquillity.”[10] To appreciate Calhoun’s inherited republicanism, as well as his own understanding of the concept, we turn to the Kentucky Resolutions.

The Kentucky Resolutions were penned during a period of great political turmoil resulting from the introduction of various Federalist Party initiatives including the “XYZ affair” (1797), and more importantly, the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts (1798). These actions confirmed the Republicans’ worst fears (as a political party) regarding the centralization of political power in the country. The Alien and Sedition Acts were actually four pieces of legislation enacted in a time of nationalistic fervor related to the Quasi-War with France. In a general sense, the uproar over the Acts centered upon the apparent Federalist abrogation of the fundamental concept of liberty as applied to political life; to restrict freedom of speech and the press and to repress aliens was to retreat from the Founders’ design. The response of Jefferson to the crisis served as an important personal and philosophical example to Calhoun. Thus, the importance of the Kentucky Resolutions resided not only in the form of the protest, but also in the manner in which it was presented. To better appreciate the main qualities of the response, we will now examine the text of the Kentucky Resolutions.

For Jefferson, the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 and 1799 were a defense of the republican vision of American politics as incorporated in its most profound representation, the Constitution. The Resolutions were composed to offset the Federalist effort at disparaging this republican understanding and experience, which Jefferson perceived as “palpably in the teeth of the Constitution,” and consequentially against the grain of a republican understanding of American political life.[11] The first Resolution framed republicanism as grounded in the division of authority for governing among the national government and the governments of the “several states.”[12] The federated nature of this primary republican arrangement was mirrored in a slightly different form in Article VII of the Constitution, where ratification was defined as establishing a government “between the states.” As a formal aspect of authority between the elements, states were to serve as co-partners in the operation of the regime, as they shared a common bond “not united on the principle of unlimited submission to their general government.”[13] The Constitution functioned as the sinew of the compact, binding the regime together, which was the result of establishing perimeters of authority for popular rule. The designation of this governing authority according to the first Kentucky Resolution was originally articulated in the Ninth and Tenth Amendments to the Constitution, but the political crisis of 1798 required the reclamation of responsibility as a means of protecting the autonomy and fundamental liberties of the states’ “definite reserve powers” from usurpation by the general government. In case the general government trespassed the boundaries of the powers not delegated to it, a state could rightly declare its actions as “unauthoritative, void, and of no force.”[14] As an even more profound commentary on the Ninth and Tenth Amendments in light of the Resolution’s steadfast aim of protecting reserved powers, states assumed a parallel status with the general government in terms of delineating delegated power, as “each party has an equal right to judge for itself, as well of infractions, as of the mode and measure of redress.”[15]

The central section of the first Kentucky Resolutions responded more directly to the provisions of the four Alien and Sedition Acts, offering an explicit critique of the general government’s willingness to punish crimes beyond the purview of the Constitution, and to pursue punishment reserved to the states. As the primary repositories of political liberty under the Constitution, individual states were actually better able to judge the efficacy of the essential freedoms enumerated in the First Amendment. The general government’s propensity to assert authority in the area of protecting freedom would be counterproductive, thus reaffirming the Founders’ plan for including the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights as protection for long-established practices in the states. The understanding of diffused authority embodied in the Resolutions was identical to the Constitution: states possessed the reserve power to form relationships with religious bodies, thereby prohibiting interference from the general government. The connection between churches and various states, particularly the Episcopalians throughout the country and the Congregationalists in Massachusetts and Connecticut, remained one of great intimacy after the Ratification period. “Respecting” these associations and prohibiting the general government from subverting this alliance for the sake of a national church was a pressing concern among the states. The necessity of state protection regarding these basic liberties of religion, speech and the press served to “throw down the sanctuary which covers the others [freedoms],” and allowed states to hold their ground against perceived attempts at appropriation.[16] The protection of these rights and state authority rested more upon moral than legal and procedural grounds. After all, states had formed and ratified the compact and were closer to the essence of the country, the citizenry.

The Kentucky Resolutions also incorporated the concept of subsidiarity as operating between states and the general government, and among the states themselves. Co-mingling the needs of the community and individual allowed the states to ensure a system of popular rule that incorporated an appreciation of the collective will, as well as the dignity of the individual. As this essay argues, Calhoun’s political thought continued to exhibit an attachment to the notion of subsidiarity, linking the wisdom of the ancients with the republicanism of the Founding, and with his own political thought. A stable polity and social harmony could only be secured when each part of the community was “just to each other,” assuming a role in governing proportionate to its form.[17] Such an appreciation of subsidiarity was supported by Jefferson’s willingness to argue that protecting aliens also came under the responsibility of the states and was not delegated by the Constitution. With few restrictions having been placed upon states regarding the status of “alien-friends,” which consisted mostly of Irish and French immigrants sympathetic to republican principles, the Alien and Sedition Acts were a blatant infringement upon the reserved powers of the states. Any measures “not delegated are reserved” to the states and any abrogation of such a compact would result in the general government’s offense being declared “void and of no force” as an infraction against the Constitution within the confines of the respective state (or states).[18]

In defending state action as a partial remedy to the general government’s propensity for overstepping the established boundaries of responsibility, Jefferson noted that the Alien and Sedition Acts encouraged the executive to abuse the balance of power in regards to the judiciary. To allow the President to become directly involved in judicial decision-making was to destroy the fragile equilibrium provided by the separation of powers explicitly detailed in Article III of the Constitution. Most efforts to transfer distinctive judicial responsibility from the courts resulted in the consolidation of power in the executive. Because of the connection between the judiciary and the executive, Calhoun also argued that judges were tempted to assist the executive, which had the effect of increasing executive power and influence.[19] The reserved powers served as a check against the abuse of the separated powers because the limitations applied to each branch, “as strongly against the judicial as against the other departments, and of course, were left under the exclusive will of the states.”[20] Executive aggrandizement of judicial responsibilities could become a recipe for disaster; the president already possessed the power to appoint judges and the ability to veto initiatives from the legislature, and the additional convergence encountered in the Alien and Sedition Act and subsequent measures overturned the critical restraint contained in the Constitution’s delineation of reserved powers. Again, the abject subversion of constitutional limits upon political authority, as well as a devotion to the perpetuation of the republic, entitled a state (or states) to declare such acts “utterly void and of no force” in their locale.[21]

While executive and judicial aggrandizement of all governing authority under the Acts constituted a dire situation, the expansion and centralization of the political life increased exponentially when the “Necessary and Proper” Clause (Article 1, Section 8, Clause 18) was interpreted as enabling greater involvement by the central government. Jefferson foresaw the problems associated with the imprudent expansion of implied powers, and in the Discourse nearly two generations after the first Kentucky Resolutions were introduced Calhoun revised and extended the Jeffersonian critique of the “elastic clause.” Sharing a philosophical habit of mind, Jefferson and Calhoun believed that states should not remain passive in such a critical debate; instead, an attitude of persistent vigilance against and regular re-examination of intrusions by the general government into state authority proved advantageous for the preservation of liberty. Looking far beyond the temporal crisis of the Alien and Sedition Acts, Jefferson pleaded with his fellow Americans to follow a habit of “revisal and correction” when confronted with the abuse of federal power.[22] Calhoun would later concur with Jefferson’s exhortation, counseling states to assume an attitude of jealousy in protecting their power and mediatory role within the government.[23] On a rudimentary level the survival of the regime and a properly constituted mode of popular rule demanded trust between the parts: a mutual attitude of balance and restraint on the behalf of the general government and the states. President Adams and the Federalists had temporarily destroyed such trust, Jefferson argued. Eventually Calhoun’s disdain for the disembodiment of mutual trust–between the states and the general government–from a proper conceptualization of popular rule, subverted by increasing facile and abstract notions of power and liberty, would develop into the central concerns of his political thought.

The first set of Resolutions ended with a plea directed to the rest of states on the behalf of a self-defining “union for specified national purposes” under the Constitution that safeguarded the citizen from the abuse of federal power through a hermeneutic of original protection. “In questions of power, then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief, by the chains of the Constitution,” Jefferson declared.[24] The original protection of freedom and liberty provided by the Constitution needed the continued support of the states and the citizenry. The collective will of the citizenry, best exhibited through the medium of their respective states, was to be assimilated in a system of popular rule grounded in the protection provided by the original Constitution. Republican constitutionalism prescribed a return to foundational concerns, as well as adaptability when facing the exigencies of political life.[25]

The original set of Kentucky (and Virginia Resolutions) were followed by the Kentucky Resolutions of 1799, authored by Jefferson and endorsed by the state’s legislature and governor. Responding to the less than enthusiastic reception given by various state legislatures to the first set of resolutions, the second set clarified Jefferson’s devotion to the cohesiveness of the republic, while chiding and critiquing the implacable Federalist disregard for concentration of power:

To again enter the field of argument, and attempt more fully or forcibly to expose the unconstitutionality of those obnoxious laws, would, it is apprehended, be as unnecessary as unavailing. We cannot, however, but lament, that, in the discussion of those interesting subjects, by the sundry of the legislatures of our sister states, unfounded suggestions, and uncandid insinuations, derogatory to the true character and principles of the commonwealth have been substituted in place of fair reasoning and sound argument.[26]

Instead of contemplating the inherited tradition and design for the protection of the states and their citizens contained in the Constitution, the Northern state legislatures succumbed to momentary political considerations, and drafted resolutions in support of President John Adams’s endorsement of federal authority as presented in the Alien and Sedition Acts. The Northern legislatures’ inability to heed Jefferson’s argument from principle could lead to despotism, if not arrested by the prudential judgment of these states. The Northern states, according to Jefferson, had confounded their primary role as members of the compact with the need to support the general government, which compromised the states’ role as judges of federal expansionism in proportion to the amount of emoluments and patronage to be received for supporting “the discretion of those who administer the [general] government.”[27]

Following closely the first Kentucky Resolutions, the second set reaffirmed the “sovereign and independent” quality of “the several states” who inaugurated the founding “instrument,” the Constitution.[28] Jefferson continued to argue for the states as arbiters of disputes regarding the status of delegated power; in fact, it was the states who first allowed the general government to share in these aspects of popular rule. In assuming the role of protectors and delegators of power, the states served as mediums for ameliorating political and constitutional divisiveness. In other words, the states, individually and collectively, possessed responsibilities for resolving conflict and preserving political order.

However, proper mediation required the states to establish clear lines of demarcation concerning the judgment of transgressions by the general government. Resolutions, public declarations, and related measures aided the overall purpose, but to adequately assume the states’ constitutional duty regarding protection demanded a return to “the unquestionable right to judge…infractions.”[29] The states’ ability to adjudicate conflicts was both limited and intensive. On one hand, the Resolutions assumed strictures against state action, allowing protest only in those cases where “palpable violations” occurred, thereby confining state resistance to the most critical constitutional concerns facing the republic.[30] On the other, states as the sovereign building blocks of the American nation, must reject attempts to encroach upon their reserved powers. As we have noted, protection allowed the states to apply the “rightful remedy” when threatened. To describe the process of state action Jefferson supplied a new term, nullification, to note the immediacy and severity of the “remedy” necessary to prohibit the general government from absorbing state authority.[31] The inextricable linking of state protest with nullification had begun, followed by the Federalist effort to depict the term as a mantra for an overly protective, extreme state response against the general government. Eventually, the Federalist attempt to discredit Jefferson’s thoughtful and prudential understanding of the appropriate role for states within the original design, especially the use of the term nullification, would prevail. Jefferson’s second presentation merely fueled the Federalist ire against state authority, prompting denunciations from several state legislatures controlled by Federalist or related factions. Even though Jefferson mounted a consistent rebuttal to the more extreme attacks upon nullification, the Federalist effort to devalue nullification prevailed. As a label to describe an authentic state response, nullification sugggests an organic and protective role states can assume in relation to the general government. Jefferson’s “Solemn Declaration and Protest,” written several months before his death, also evidenced a return to this defense of state authority, depicting the relationship between states as “free and independent” and as preserving state sovereignty within the federal arrangement.[32] As a recent study suggests, the “Declaration and Protest” formed a “second Declaration of Independence,” as it defended an enduring theme of Jefferson’s political thought: the protection of states and the basic liberty of the citizenry required a vigilance against centralized government. It also supported the republican notion of popular rule that operated within a fundamental division of power.[33]

In the shadow of Jefferson, Calhoun rearticulated an understanding of popular rule and American republicanism for a new generation who found the term nullification distasteful while accepting the concept’s fundamental assumptions. Unfortunately, by the time Calhoun confronted the crises in American politics, a generation after Jefferson, nullification had lost most of its evocative power, thanks in part to the Jacksonian onslaught against state authority and the muddled legacy of Jefferson’s original partner in the effort to battle the Alien and Sedition Acts, James Madison.[34] In a speech given at a dinner in his honor at Pendleton, South Carolina, Calhoun provided a summation of the republicanism that guided his political thought and influenced his theory of popular rule:

[T]o strengthen this control of the ruled over rulers, through the great instrumentality of election, and to prevent it from being weakened by accident or design, particularly in the highest instance of its exercise by the people of these States, has been my constant aim; and Gentleman, I trust, that I will never shrink from this great object under any circumstance of difficulty or danger.[35]

From these “first principles” of the Kentucky Resolutions, Calhoun translated the republican worldview to his own generation, while presenting and articulating an original theory of politics that allowed for the reconciling of popular rule with the ethical life.[36]

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1. John C. Calhoun, “Remarks on the Bill to Authorize an Issue of Treasury Notes,” May, 18, 1838, in The Papers of John C. Calhoun, Clyde Wilson ed., Volume XIV (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1981), p. 302 [Hereafter cited as Papers]. Also see, Kevin R. C. Gutzman’s Virginia’s American Revolution: From Dominion to Republic, 1776-1840 (Lexington Books, 2007), for the evolution of political events and political thought.

2. See Priscilla Ann Atwell, “Freedom and Diversity: Continuity in the Political Tradition of Thomas Jefferson and John C. Calhoun” (Ph.D. diss., University of California, Los Angeles, 1967), pp. 1-143.

3. John C. Calhoun, “To Bolling Hall,” April 3, 1832, in Papers, Volume XI, p. 565.

4. Robert Shalhope, “Thomas Jefferson’s Republicanism and Antebellum Southern Thought,” Journal of Southern History, Vol. XLII, No. 4 (November 1976), pp. 530-532.

5. For a partial rendering of the Resolutions’ history see Adrienne Koch and Harry Ammon, “The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions: An Episode in Jefferson’s and Madison’s Defense of Civil Liberties,” William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. V, No. 2 (April 1948), pp. 147-177.

6. Enquirer, Richmond, Virginia, March 13, 1832, pp. 2-3 (as cited in Clyde N. Wilson, “Introduction,” Papers, Vol. X, p. xliv).

7. Gerald M. Capers, John C. Calhoun, Opportunist (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1960), p. 97.

8. Thomas Jefferson, “First Inaugural Address,” March 4, 1801, in The Portable Thomas Jefferson, ed. Merrill D. Peterson (New York: Penguin Books, 1977), p. 293.

9. Thomas Jefferson, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 10, ed. Paul L. Ford (New York, 1892-1899), pp. 348-352.

10. Papers, Vol. XIV, p. 565.

11. “Thomas Jefferson to James Madison,” June 7, 1798, Writings, Vol. VII, Ibid., pp. 266-67.

12. “Resolutions of Kentucky Legislature,” in The Virginia Report of 1799-1800 Touching the Alien and Sedition Laws; Together With the Virginia Resolutions of December 21, 1798, The Debate and Proceedings Thereon in the House of Delegates of Virginia, and Several Other Documents (Richmond: J. W. Randolph, 1850), p. 162 [hereafter cited as “Resolutions of Kentucky Legislature”].

13. “Resolutions of Kentucky Legislature,” Ibid.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid., p. 163.

17. “To Richard K. Crallé,” April 15, 1832, in Papers, XI, pp. 566-567. For a more comprehensive presentation of subsidiarity see Yves Simon, Nature and Functions of Authority (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1940); and as a reassessment in response to recent developments, see Bruce Frohnen, The New Communitarians and the Crisis of Modern Liberalism (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1996), pp. 204-235.

18. “Resolutions of Kentucky Legislature,” Ibid., p. 164.

19. “Speech on the Force Bill,” February 15 and 16, 1833, in Papers, Vol. XII, p. 50.

20. Ibid.

21. “Resolutions of Kentucky Legislature,” Ibid., p. 164. The voiding of Federal initiatives could also take place when several states or a majority of states responded to an unconstitutional assumption of power by the executive.

22. Ibid., p. 165.

23. “Remarks on the Bill to Incorporate and Establish the Smithsonian Institution,” February 25, 1839, in Papers, Vol., XVI, p. 577. Near the end of the first Kentucky Resolution, Jefferson also implored states to assume an attitude of “jealousy and not confidence” in the abuse of Federal power (Virginia Report, Ibid., p. 166).

24. “Resolutions of Kentucky Legislature,” Ibid., p. 166.

25. While less an argument for original intent so often encountered in contemporary political theory and constitutional commentaries than a means of adjudicating disputes in accordance with the Constitution, Jefferson and Calhoun suggested the importance of original protection as an important theoretical aspect of republican political theory. Of course, this concept is antithetical to strategies that insist upon a continued revision of the mode of constitutional interpretation as the basis for circumventing the need to place restraints upon the forms of popular rule (See John Hart Ely, Democracy and Distrust [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980]).

[26]”The Kentucky Resolutions of 1799,” February 22, 1799, in Documents of American History, Fourth Edition, ed. Henry Steele Commager (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1948), pp. 183-184).

[27]Ibid., p. 184.

[28]Ibid. Efforts to portray Calhoun’s political thought as overly “mechanistic” appear to ignore the strict constructionist foundation he inherited from Jefferson (See Ralph Lerner, “Calhoun’s New Science of Politics,” American Political Science Review, Vol. XVII, No. 4 [December 1963], pp. 918-932).




[32]Thomas Jefferson, “The Solemn Declaration and Protest Of The Commonwealth Of Virginia, On The Principles Of the Constitution Of The United States, And On The Violations of Them” (December 1825), in The Complete Jefferson, ed. Saul K. Padover (New York: Tudor, 1943), p. 134.

[33]Garrett Ward Sheldon, The Political Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), pp. 88-94.

[34]See M. E. Bradford, Original Intentions: On the Making and the Ratification of the United States Constitution (Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 1993), p. 6; and Kevin R. [Constantine] Gutzman, “A Troublesome Legacy: James Madison and ‘the Principles of ’98’,” Journal of the Early Republic, Vol. 15, No. 4 (Winter 1995), pp. 569-589.

[35]”Speech at Pendleton, S.C.,” September 7, 1826, in Papers, p. 202.

[36]For Calhoun, nullification was a much abused term in American politics, making the use of it problematic unless properly defined in light of Jefferson, the Kentucky Resolutions, the Virginia Resolutions and the Report. Calhoun also knew that nullification was frequently misunderstood. He remarked to David Caldwell, Speaker of the North Carolina Senate: “If it [supporting nullification] means [I am] a disunionist, a disorganizer or an anarchist, then so far from being in favour of nullification, I am utterly opposed to it” (Papers, Vol. XI, p. 375).

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