This section is from the book "Popular Law Library Vol1 Introduction To The Study Of Law Legal History", by Albert H. Putney. Also see: Popular Law-Dictionary.
This question as to the relative powers of the government of the United States and of the State governments, was the principal dividing line between the American political parties, in the early days of the Republic. It was, in fact, by politics as much as by law, that the settlement of this controversy was to be effected. It must be borne in mind that in spite of the small changes which have been made by amendment in the text of the Constitution, since its adoption, the relations which the states bear to the general government at the present time is a very different thing from the relation which they bore in the early days of the Constitution. The weight of power, the center of gravity, which at first inclined towards the individual states, has now swung far over towards the central government. The movement in this direction has been almost continuous throughout the hundred and nineteen years which have elapsed since the Constitution was adopted, but its most rapid progress was during the epoch of the Civil War. The Constitutional History of the United States is in fact divided by this war into two sharply denned periods.
The grounds for differences of opinion as to the meaning of the Constitution, largely arose out of the fact that the wording of the Constitution had been the result of compromise. Only thirty-nine of the fifty-five delegates to the convention signed the Constitution, and it failed to completely satisfy any one. Indeed, had it satisfied the extreme party it could never have been adopted. The result was, that after the adoption of the Constitution each faction sought for that interpretation of the instrument which would best serve to carry out their own views of government.
At the election of 1789, the conduct of the government under the newly adopted Constitution, was not unnaturally given to the party friendly to this instrument, and the government of the United States remained under the control of this party for twelve years. The efforts towards the strengthening of the central government, which were made during this period, were the work of the legislative and executive departments. The judicial department was still weak and the tremendous influence which this department was later to exercise in the development of the government of the United States was not yet appreciated.
The troubled conditions of the times caused the Federal party, during the administration of President John Adams, to pass a series of laws, culminating with the Alien and Sedition Acts, for the purpose of strengthening the central government. These laws aroused great indignation and opposition to the government and ultimately drove the Federalist party from power. A more immediate result was the calling forth of the most dramatic enunciations of the State rights principles to be found in American history prior to the secession period.
The Virginia and Kentucky resolutions were proclamations passed by the Legislatures of these states in 1798 and 1799, denouncing the recent usurpations of power (as viewed by the members of these legislatures) by the National Government, and setting forth the relations between the general and state governments, from the standpoint of the states rights or strict constructionist standpoint.
The Virginia resolutions of 1798 declared that the constitution was a compact by which the states had surrendered only a limited portion of their powers, that whenever the Federal Government undertook a step over the boundary of its delegated authority, it was the duty of the states to interpose and maintain the rights which they had reserved to themselves; that the Alien and Sedition laws were an usurpment by the Federal Government of powers not granted to it, since the abridgment of liberty of speech or of the press had been especially forbidden by the constitution; that the State of Virginia solemnly declared those laws to be unconstitutional, and appealed to the other states to join in that declaration; and that her governor should be instructed to transmit copies of these resolutions to the governors of other states to be laid before the Legislatures. These resolutions were repeated by the Virginia Legislature in the following year.
The Kentucky resolutions of 1798 were to the same general effect as those of Virginia, but with the additional declaration that the states were one party to the compact, and the Federal Government was the other, and that each party must be the judge of infractions of the agreement, and of the mode and measure of redress. The next year the Kentucky resolutions of 1799 were adopted. They declared "nullification" to be the "rightful remedy," but qualified this by saying that they "bowed to the laws of the Union."
On March 4, 1801, the control of both the executive and legislative departments of the United States Government passed into the hands of the strict Constructionists Party, which was to retain its control of these departments, with the exception of brief intervals, for sixty years. During the rule of this party the above mentioned departments, were hostile to the development of the power of the central government at the expense of those of the states, and yet during this very period we find a great increase of the powers of the National Government, a result brought about by the work of the Judicial Department.
One of the last official acts of President John Adams was the appointment of John Marshall as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. This appointment was to strongly affect the future constitutional and legal history of the country. Under his leadership the Supreme Court soon began to take a position relative to the constitution which materially contributed to the completion of the work of making one Nation out of the United States.
For the half century beginning in 1820 these questions of State rights were inseparably connected with the slavery question.