The Social Compact and Our Constitutional Republic

CONSTITUTION - at the Philadalphia Convention

by Diane Rufino, Jan. 21, 2018 (first section only; other sections attributed to other authors)

I. INTRODUCTION

A Social Compact is an agreement, entered into by individuals, that creates some form of self-government and results in the formation of an organized society, the prime motive being the desire for protection and the performance of common functions to serve the community of individuals. To form an organized community, a surrender of some personal liberties is the trade-off.

Perhaps you may remember the Mayflower Compact from your days in grade school. You may remember that it was a document – you probably don’t remember what kind of document it was – that was drafted aboard the Mayflower, as it brought the Pilgrims to the shores of what would one day become Massachusetts. Well, the Mayflower Compact is actually quite significant. It was the first American document to establish a framework of self-government. It was perhaps the first the American Social Compact. The Compact was drafted by the Pilgrims as they sailed across the Atlantic and was signed on November 11, 1620 and became the governing document of Plymouth Colony.

I know that most people have never heard of the term “Social Compact” but I make the case here that this term is probably one of the most important terms to know and understand. The next American Revolution will be to wrestle power away from the federal government and to transfer it back to its rightful depositories, which are the States and the People themselves. The only way this will be possible is if the American people understand that the US Constitution is a social compact, was intended as such, was promoted as such, and was commonly referred to as such up until the end of the Civil War. All of the primary documents that explain the Constitution, refer to it, document its drafting, its adoption, and ratification characterize it as a “social compact.” Early Supreme Court decisions refer to it as a “social compact.” (See Chisholm v. Georgia, 1793; Calder v. Bull, 1798), and dozens of lower federal courts, as well as state courts, have done the same. When the colonies sought their independence from Great Britain, they articulated in the Declaration of Independence they believed that governments are products of social compacts (constitutions establish government authority, and set appropriate limits, all by the consent of the governed) and due to the “compact” or “contract” nature of that agreement, they had the right, under the Laws of Nature and God’s Law, to establish a new government, of their own design and suited to serve them accordingly (“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them….”)

Compact Theory, as will be discussed below, follows the same legal theories as contract law, which is one of the oldest areas of law. There are parties to a compact, there are assigned obligations and benefits, there are consequences for a breach, and there are remedies. In the case of the Constitution, the parties are the individual States. The government is NOT a party but is the creature – it being created by the Constitution. The federal government was “created” to serve the States – to perform those common functions that each state would have to perform alone but could be more efficient, more effective, and uniform, when performed for all. The federal government was created as an Agent for the States – against, to serve their interests, thus making it easy to form and remain together in the form of a Union (a “confederation” of sovereign states). Being the rightful parties to the compact (ie, the “contract”), the obligations and benefits are reserved to them only. The obligations are that each State delegate some their sovereign powers (listed in Article I) to the federal government for the good of the Union and respect that the federal government will govern supremely on those objects. And the benefits are those mentioned – the federal government would serve as the Agent, mainly providing safety and defense, dealing with foreign nations, ensuring regular commerce, and providing a common currency. A compact is a formal, and stable embodiment of the terms on which a group of people decide to live together in a community. It creates their government and represents the “consent of the governed.” The compact retains the same meaning and terms until the people agree to change it.

So, one benefit of a Social Compact is that the parties have a right and an expectation that the terms will remain the same. In the case of the Constitution, the government created is one of limited powers, with those powers expressly listed for each branch. All remaining government power is reserved to the States (both implied by the limited nature of the delegation of power and expressly by the Tenth Amendment). So when the federal government exceeds its powers under the Constitution and passes an unconstitutional law, establishes an unconstitutional policy, or renders an unconstitutional court “opinion,” the States, as the parties to the compact, have a RIGHT to ensure that the government exercises only those powers given it and to PREVENT such unconstitutional law, policy, or court opinion from being enforced on We the People. After all, when the government assumes powers not delegated to it, it naturally usurps them from their natural possessor, which is either the States or the People themselves.

James Madison explained this concept best, when he articulated the doctrines of Nullification and Interposition in his Virginia Resolves of 1798, which were written for the Virginia legislature in order to nullify the Alien & Sedition Acts, which were clearly unconstitutional, and prevent the residents of the state from being subject to them. The Virginia Resolves read: “That this Assembly doth explicitly and peremptorily declare, that it views the powers of the federal government, as resulting from the compact, to which the states are parties; as limited by the plain sense and intention of the instrument constituting the compact; as no further valid that they are authorized by the grants enumerated in that compact; and that in case of a deliberate, palpable, and dangerous exercise of other powers, not granted by the said compact, the states who are parties thereto, have the right, and are in duty bound, to interpose for arresting the progress of the evil, and for maintaining within their respective limits, the authorities, rights and liberties appertaining to them.” In his term “interpose,” he encompasses “nullification’ as well, which is the doctrine that says any law made without the proper authority (ie, an unconstitutional law) is automatically null and void and therefore unenforceable. Of course the federal government will never admit on its own that any of its actions are unconstitutional. It is up to the sovereign States to do that. In this manner, government can be kept in check.

It is Compact Theory that provides this level of protection against government tyranny for We the People.

Besides keeping the federal in check with regard to its rightful powers, States like South Carolina also believed it had the right to intervene when the government violated the basic nature and purpose of its being – to govern for the individual States equally; that is, not to operate government primarily for the benefit of certain States or certain regions over others.

When South Carolina, at the end of 1832, took strong action to oppose the high protective tariffs supported by Andrew Jackson’s administration, the Tariffs of Abomination (of 1828 and then 1832), which were exceedingly burdensome and crushing on the economy of the state, it looked to the compact nature of the Constitution for justification: On January 22, 1833, Senator John C. Calhoun, of South Carolina, submitted the following resolutions:—

Resolved, That the people of the several States composing these United States are united as parties to a constitutional compact, to which the people of each State acceded as a separate sovereign community, each binding itself by its own particular ratification; and that the union, of which the said compact is the bond, is a union between the States ratifying the same.

Resolved, That the people of the several States thus united by the constitutional compact, in forming that instrument, and in creating a general government to carry into effect the objects for which they were formed, delegated to that government, for that purpose, certain definite powers, to be exercised jointly, reserving, at the same time, each State to itself, the residuary mass of powers, to be exercised by its own separate government; and that whenever the general government assumes the exercise of powers not delegated by the compact, its acts are unauthorized, and are of no effect; and that the same government is not made the final judge of the powers delegated to it, since that would make its discretion, and not the Constitution, the measure of its powers; but that, as in all other cases of compact among sovereign parties, without any common judge, each has an equal right to judge for itself, as well of the infraction as of the mode and measure of redress.

Resolved, That the assertions, that the people of these United States, taken collectively as individuals, are now, or ever have been, united on the principle of the social compact, and, as such, are now formed into one nation or people, or that they have ever been so united in any one stage of their political existence; that the people of the several States composing the Union have not, as members thereof, retained their sovereignty; that the allegiance of their citizens has been transferred to the general government; that they have parted with the right of punishing treason through their respective State governments; and that they have not the right of judging in the last resort as to the extent of the powers reserved, and of consequence of those delegated,—are not only without foundation in truth, but are contrary to the most certain and plain historical facts, and the clearest deductions of reason; and that all exercise of power on the part of the general government, or any of its departments, claiming authority from such erroneous assumptions, must of necessity be unconstitutional,—must tend, directly and inevitably, to subvert the sovereignty of the States, to destroy the federal character of the Union, and to rear on its ruins a consolidated government, without constitutional check or limitation, and which must necessarily terminate in the loss of liberty itself.”

South Carolina, in convention on November 24, 1832, adopted an Ordinance of Nullification which protested the constitutionality of the tariffs and stated that it would not provide the federal government with said tariff revenue. This would become the so-called Nullification Crisis of 1832. President Jackson threatened to invade South Carolina with federal troops and collect the revenue by force, but a compromise tariff bill was quickly reached in Congress which averted the crisis and which eventually lowered the tariff to pre-1828 levels. Nullification worked !! It prevented government abuse on the people and businesses of Virginia. (The tariff was discriminatory on southern states, particularly South Carolina and the Gulf States; the North did not pay tariffs because of the items that had duties attached; the North manufactured those items – that’s why the tariff was a “protective” tariff… it protected the industries and products of the North !!!!)

Another benefit of characterizing the Constitution as a Social Compact is that if the compact is violated, the State, as a party, has the option to resume its powers. Actually, it has the option of resuming those powers even if there is no violation, but merely because the compact is frustrating its “happiness.” We know the States viewed the Constitution as a compact when they debated it in their ratifying conventions, because all used that term. And we know they believed they had the inherent right to resume the powers delegated because three states, Virginia, New York, and Rhode Island, explicitly included Resumption Clauses in their ratification decisions. They reserved the right to withdraw from the compact. Other states had less strongly-worded reservations, but no state would have ratified the Constitution if they believed that in doing so they would be surrendering their newly-won independence.

When New York delegates met on July 26, 1788, their ratification document read, “That the Powers of Government may be resumed by the People, whensoever it shall become necessary to their Happiness; that every Power, Jurisdiction and right which is not by the said Constitution clearly delegated to the Congress of the United States, or the departments of the government thereof, remains to the People of the several States, or to their respective State Governments to whom they may have granted the same.”

On May 29, 1790, the Rhode Island delegates made a similar claim in their ratification document. “That the powers of government may be resumed by the people, whensoever it shall become necessary to their happiness: That the rights of the States respectively to nominate and appoint all State Officers, and every other power, jurisdiction and right, which is not by the said constitution clearly delegated to the Congress of the United States or to the departments of government thereof, remain to the people of the several states, or their respective State Governments to whom they may have granted the same.”

On June 26, 1788, Virginia’s elected delegates met to ratify the Constitution. In their ratification document, they said, “The People of Virginia declare and make known that the powers granted under the Constitution being derived from the People of the United States may be resumed by them whensoever the same shall be perverted to their injury or oppression and that every power not granted thereby remains with them and at their will.”

The most extreme benefit of a Social Compact is the right of a State, as a party, to secede from the compact.

In adopting her “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union,” on December 24, 1860, the Palmetto State explained her right to do so based on the compact nature of the Constitution.

“The people of the State of South Carolina, in Convention assembled, on the 26th day of April, A.D., 1852, declared that the frequent violations of the Constitution of the United States, by the Federal Government, and its encroachments upon the reserved rights of the States, fully justified this State in then withdrawing from the Federal Union; but in deference to the opinions and wishes of the other slaveholding States, she forbore at that time to exercise this right. Since that time, these encroachments have continued to increase, and further forbearance ceases to be a virtue.

And now the State of South Carolina having resumed her separate and equal place among nations, deems it due to herself, to the remaining United States of America, and to the nations of the world, that she should declare the immediate causes which have led to this act…….

The parties to whom this Constitution was submitted, were the several sovereign States; they were to agree or disagree, and when nine of them agreed the compact was to take effect among those concurring; and the General Government, as the common agent, was then invested with their authority.

If only nine of the thirteen States had concurred, the other four would have remained as they then were– separate, sovereign States, independent of any of the provisions of the Constitution. In fact, two of the States did not accede to the Constitution until long after it had gone into operation among the other eleven; and during that interval, they each exercised the functions of an independent nation.

By this Constitution, certain duties were imposed upon the several States, and the exercise of certain of their powers was restrained, which necessarily implied their continued existence as sovereign States. But to remove all doubt, an amendment was added, which declared that the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States, respectively, or to the people. On the 23d May , 1788, South Carolina, by a Convention of her People, passed an Ordinance assenting to this Constitution, and afterwards altered her own Constitution, to conform herself to the obligations she had undertaken.

Thus was established, by compact between the States, a Government with definite objects and powers, limited to the express words of the grant. This limitation left the whole remaining mass of power subject to the clause reserving it to the States or to the people, and rendered unnecessary any specification of reserved rights.

We maintain that in every compact between two or more parties, the obligation is mutual; that the failure of one of the contracting parties to perform a material part of the agreement, entirely releases the obligation of the other; and that where no arbiter is provided, each party is remitted to his own judgment to determine the fact of failure, with all its consequences.

In the present case, that fact is established with certainty. We assert that fourteen of the States have deliberately refused, for years past, to fulfill their constitutional obligations, and we refer to their own Statutes for the proof.

The Constitution of the United States, in its fourth Article, provides as follows: ‘No person held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up, on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.’

This stipulation was so material to the compact, that without it that compact would not have been made. The greater number of the contracting parties held slaves, and they had previously evinced their estimate of the value of such a stipulation by making it a condition in the Ordinance for the government of the territory ceded by Virginia, which now composes the States north of the Ohio River.

We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.

For twenty-five years this agitation has been steadily increasing, until it has now secured to its aid the power of the common Government. Observing the forms of the Constitution, a sectional party has found within that Article establishing the Executive Department, the means of subverting the Constitution itself. A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that ‘Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,’ and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.

The guaranties of the Constitution will then no longer exist; the equal rights of the States will be lost. The slaveholding States will no longer have the power of self-government, or self-protection, and the Federal Government will have become their enemy.”    [For the full Declaration, go to: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/csa_scarsec.asp ]

Note that South Carolina’s real issue with the federal government was the tariff issue; it was the immediate issue. Lincoln promised to support a new protective tariff (which Buchanan has just signed it in his waning days) which would elevate the tariff to its highest levels ever. But legally, the federal government has the authority under the Constitution to erect such tariffs. South Carolina agreed to that authority in adopting the document and joining the Union. It very well could not try to make a legal argument for secession based on its opposition to the high discriminatory tariff. But the slavery issue is a constitutional issue. And it represented an actual, palpable breach of the compact which would justify its withdrawal from the union.

In adopting the Constitution, the states understood that they would be free to leave the Union, as situations dictated. After all, they left the Union established by the Articles of Confederation to establish a new Union under the Constitution. But that Union was different and only those states that adopted would be members of that new Union and bound by the Constitution. Article VII states that 9 states needed to ratify the Constitution in order for it to go into effect.

So, to recap, the particular benefits of a Social Compact lie in the remedies it provides the parties should the compact be violated, or breached. The consequences for a breach of the compact are simple: If a State breaches, the others, acting alone, can decide whether to consider the compact broken which then would allow it to be relieved of its obligations (ie, the State would no longer be bound by the Constitution). If the federal government attempts to assume powers not delegated to it, the States have a right, even an obligation, to identify that unconstitutional act and prevent its enforcement.

And an extreme remedy is always available – the right of rescission. Rescission is the right of one of the parties to rescind or cancel the contract for cause. It is the right of a party, if there are many parties, to withdraw from the agreement. This is the remedy of secession. The abrogation, or cancellation of a contract, or withdrawal or secession from a compact, is a remedy designed to restore the parties to the positions they would have been in if no contract or compact had ever been formed. As explained above, once a State decides to secede, it resumes all the powers it had delegated away and resumes its natural station under the Laws of Nature. It is then free to establish a new form of government that suits is purposes. As to the remaining States, they are free to remain in the compact, which at that point would be a new Union. That Union is free to remain on the same terms and under the same conditions.

The Constitution was roundly understood and recognized as a Social Compact up until the years leading to the Civil War. Again, all our founding documents and primary documents explaining the Constitution and referring to it characterize it as a Social Compact. But something happened in the years when South Carolina started to become contentious with regards to the high protective tariffs. The protective tariffs had became a hallmark of the Whig Party platform and then the Republican Party platform. Leading Whig (House Speaker, then Senator) Henry Clay initiated a new government plan to help businesses. It was called the “American System” and included protective tariffs and internal improvements. The money raised by high protective tariffs would be used not only to fund the government (about 1/3 of the revenue), but it would also go to the North, for internal improvements to further industrialize those states. In other words, the protective tariffs, according to the South (and particularly South Carolina, led by Senator John C. Calhoun), were nothing more than a government scheme to plunder the wealth of the South and transfer it to the North for its benefit. When the government realized that South Carolina was not playing along smoothly, was bucking the system, and was threatening to even leave the Union over the tariff situation (perhaps other Southern States would follow suit), and they had just causes under compact theory, suddenly the notion of the Constitution as a Social Compact became a liability. All of a sudden, political leaders began asserting that the Constitution was not a Social Compact, including Senator Daniel Webster and then Abraham Lincoln himself. Lincoln came up with a new theory of the Constitution – based on a treatise on the Constitution, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, written in 1833 by then Supreme Court associate Justice Joseph Story. He would classify the Constitution as establishing a “perpetual Union” that the States had fully intended to create. [It should be noted that Story’s treatise was highly criticized by leading constitutional experts of the day – including Henry St. George Tucker, Sr., John Randolph Tucker, Abel Parker Upshur, James Kent, and John C. Calhoun. Calhoun was revered as an expert on the Constitution and perhaps even more “Jeffersonian” than Jefferson himself.] In 1833, after spending almost all of his life referring to the Constitution as a compact, leading politician and powerful orator (a “thundering” orator), Senator Webster took to the Senate floor and delivered a speech expressly denouncing the Constitution as a compact. [That speech, by the way, was given in response to the Resolutions introduced on Jan. 22 by Senator John Calhoun (shared earlier) to explain why South Carolina nullified the federal tariff].

It should be noted that years earlier, Senator Webster’s position was quite different: “But, sir, there is a compact, and no man pretends that the generation of today is not bound by the compacts of the fathers. A bargain broken on one side is a bargain broken on all; and the compact is binding upon the generation of today only if the other parties to the compact have kept their faith.” Works of Daniel Webster

If the Constitution is not characterized as a Social Compact, in total disregard of history and ignoring all of our historic documents, then we do not have the relationship between the government and the States, and the government and the People, as the States and our Founders intended. Liberty would not be safe. If is not a Social Compact, then the government is just one more group of people living in this broad general geographical territory. If we reject the status of the Constitution as a Social Compact, as liberals and progressives would like (because they favor a strong central government with plenary powers), then we must get used to the permanent notion that the federal government as the creature is more powerful than its creators. The powers “reserved to the States” would be usurped whenever the government deems it beneficial to do so. The powers surrendered to it by the States and by the People could not be resumed by them and the government would have total control over any object and over any individual or group it wishes. It would effectively mean the end to federalism – the only option left to limit the federal government. It would leave the States at the mercy of the intentions of DC politicians. The government would have a total monopoly over the meaning and scope of its powers (sorta like the monopoly it has now!) and our rights and the States’ rights would be exercised only at the good graces and designs of the federal government.

Lastly, if the Constitution is not characterized as a Social Compact, then the States do not have the remedies articulated earlier. Then the States truly have no option to secede and Lincoln’s Union will have become a reality – one that is perpetual. It will be perpetual because the government now has the right to seek its own longevity; under Compact theory, government only exists as long as it rightfully protects the rights of the individuals and serves them well.

II. DEFINITION & ORIGIN of the SOCIAL COMPACT (This section comes from: Martin Kelly, “The Social Compact,” ThoughtCo.)

The term “social contract” refers to the belief that the state exists only to serve the will of the people, who are the source of all political power enjoyed by the state. The people can choose to give or withhold this power. The idea of the social contract is one of the foundations of the American political system.

The term “social contract” can be found as far back as the writings of Plato. However, English philosopher Thomas Hobbes expanded on the idea when he wrote his classic, Leviathan, which was his philosophical response to the English Civil War. In the book, he wrote that in the earliest days there was no government. Instead, those who were the strongest could take control and use their power over others at any time. Hobbes’ theory was that the people mutually agreed to create a state, giving it only enough power to provide protection of their well-being. However, in Hobbes’ theory, once the power was given to the state, the people then relinquished any right to that power. In effect, that would be the price of the protection they sought.

Jean Jacques Rousseau and John Locke each took the social contract theory one step further. Rousseau wrote The Social Contract, or Principles of Political Right, in which he explained that the government is based on the idea of popular sovereignty. The essence of this idea is that the will of the people as a whole gives power and direction to the state. John Locke also based his political writings on the idea of the social contract. He stressed the role of the individual and the idea that in the ‘State of Nature,’ people are essentially free. However, they might decide to form a government to punish other individuals who go against the laws of nature and harm others.

It follows that if this government no longer protected each individual’s right to life, liberty, and property, then revolution was not just a right but an obligation.

The idea of the social contract had a huge impact on the Founding Fathers, especially Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. The U.S. Constitution itself starts with the three words, “We the people…” embodying this idea of popular sovereignty in the very beginning of this key document. Thus, government that is established by the free choice of its people is required to serve the people, who in the end have sovereignty, or supreme power to keep or get rid of that government.

III. THE SOCIAL COMPACT and CONSTITUTION REPUBLICS (This section comes entirely from the Constitution Society, 2007)

Between 1787 and 1791 the Framers of the U.S. Constitution established a system of government upon principles that had been discussed and partially implemented in many countries over the course of several centuries, but never before in such a pure and complete design, which we call a constitutional republic. Since then, the design has often been imitated, but important principles have often been ignored in those imitations, with the result that their governments fall short of being true republics or truly constitutional. Although these principles are discussed in civics books, the treatment of them there is often less than satisfactory. This section will attempt to remedy some of the deficiencies of those treatments.

The Social Contract and Government –

The fundamental basis for government and law in this system is the concept of the social contract, according to which human beings begin as individuals in a state of nature, and create a society by establishing a contract whereby they agree to live together in harmony for their mutual benefit, after which they are said to live in a state of society. This contract involves the retaining of certain natural rights, an acceptance of restrictions of certain liberties, the assumption of certain duties, and the pooling of certain powers to be exercised collectively.

The social contract is very simple. It has only two basic terms: (1) mutual defense of rights; and (2) mutual decision by deliberative assembly. There are no agents, no officials, that persist from one deliberative assembly to another. The duties of the social contract are militia. There may be customs that persist from assembly to assembly, such as customs for due notice, parliamentary procedure, judicial due process, and enforcement of court orders by militia. This second term could be called the constitution of society, but it precedes a constitution of government and should not be confused with it.

There is also a constitution of nature that precedes both the constitution of society and the constitution of government. It is also convenient to speak of a constitution of the dominion that follows the constitution of society and precedes the constitution of government. It arises after a society is created (by adopting the social contract), and after it acquires exclusive dominion over a well-defined territory. That is when we get things like a right to remain at and to return to one’s birthplace, which makes no sense for a society with no territory (such as nomads).

A constitution of government, such as the Constitution of 1787, is the next step in the development. It is to establish institutions, offices, procedures, duties, and structures that persist from one assembly to another that are not just customs. It is at that point that we begin to get things like laws, and paid agents and officials, whose jobs continue beyond transient assemblies. We also get taxes, standing armies, and professional law enforcers. Such pooled powers are generally exercised by delegating them to some members of the society to act as agents for the members of the society as a whole, and to do so within a framework of structure and procedures that is a government. No such government may exercise any powers not thus delegated to it, or do so in a way that is not consistent with established structures or procedures defined by a basic law which is called the constitution.

While it is possible in principle for such a constitution to consist entirely of a body of unwritten practices, traditions, court decisions, and long-established statutes, in practice no such basic order can be considered secure against confusion or corruption if it is not primarily based on a written document, which prescribes the structure, procedures, and delegated powers of government, and the retained rights of the people, and which is strictly interpreted according to the original intent of the framers.

Although in principle the procedures may allow for the direct adoption of legislation by vote of the people, this is both impractical and potentially dangerous, especially to the rights of minorities, so that it is generally best that most legislation require approval at some point in the legislative process by a deliberative assembly, a body of elected representatives rather than by direct popular vote, and that any such legislation be subject to judicial review, whereby legislation not consistent with the constitution can be voided. Such a form of government is called a republic, as distinct from a democracy, in which all legislation is adopted solely by direct popular vote. And if it operates under a well-designed constitution, it is a constitutional republic.

It is important that the deliberative assembly fairly represent all the competing interests of the people, so that the concerns of minorities can be weighed and not ignored. But fair representation is insufficient if deliberation is not effective in analyzing and anticipating all the consequences of any decisions that might be made. The consent of the majority should be necessary for action, but that consent should never be sufficient for action.

Origins of the Social Contract –

Critics of social contract theory argue that almost all persons grow up within an existing society, and therefore never have the choice of whether to enter into a social contract. Not having a choice, they say, makes any such contract void.

The original proponents of the social contract theory, John Locke, David Hume, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, answered these critics, but not in a way that is entirely satisfactory. To understand how the social contract comes about, we need to look at the kinds of contract that prevail during each stage in the development of a human being in society.

Each of us begins life under the terms of a special kind of social contract called a filial contract, between a child and his parents, and by extension to his siblings. That contract is established at the moment of bonding between parents and child following birth, and the terms of the contract are that the child will provide the parents certain pleasures that come with parenthood, particularly the satisfaction of helping to form a happy and admirable adult, and support for the parents in their later years, and in turn receives their love, support, guidance, and protection during childhood.

Although a filial contract can exist in a family that is isolated from any larger society, when the parents join a society, they pool their rights and duties as parents with other members of that society, and thereby become agents of the larger society in the raising of their own children, and accountable to that larger society for doing so properly.

As a child grows, it encounters other members of the larger society, usually beginning with other children. Whenever any two or more individuals meet with the understanding and expectation that they will live together in harmony and not fight with one another using any available means, they are establishing a social contract among themselves. In most cases they will be contracting with persons who have already established such a contract with still other persons, so that the terms of the contract are not only to live in harmony with those in direct contact, but also with all those with whom each of the parties is already engaged in a social contract, and by extension, to all others that those are in a social contract with, and so on. In other words, the social contract is transitive: if a is in a social contract with b, and b with c, then a is in a social contract with c. In this way each of us is bound under a social contract with all the other members of the society, most of whom we have never met.

As a person makes the transition from childhood to adulthood, his obligations change to match his abilities, and the filial contract gives way to the larger social contract and obligations to larger communities at the local, provincial, national, and global levels.

Of course, the social contracts of several societies may not extend to one another, giving rise to tribes or nations, whose members are bound by social contract within their membership, but are in a state of nature with respect to one another. If that state of nature involves active conflict, whether at the individual, tribal, or national level, it is said to be a state of war.

Breaches of the Social Contract —

Although the situation of there never having been a social contract is a fairly simple one, the situation of either deceiving another into thinking there is a social contract between them, or of entering into a social contract and then violating its terms, can be much more complicated, and much of law and government is concerned with dealing with such situations.

In his treatment of the subject, Locke tended to emphasize those violations of the social contract that are so serious that the social contract is entirely broken and the parties enter a state of war in which anything is permitted, including killing the violator. Today we would tend to place violations on a scale of seriousness, only the most extreme of which would permit killing. Some would even go so far as to exclude killing for any transgression, no matter how serious, but that extreme view is both unacceptable to most normal persons and subversive of the social contract itself, which ultimately depends not on mutual understanding and good will, but on a balanced distribution of physical power and the willingness to use it. Sustaining the social contract therefore depends in large part on so ordering the constitution and laws as to avoid unbalanced or excessive concentrations of power, whether in the public or the private sector.

Checks and Balances –

The framers of the U.S. Constitution addressed the problem of avoiding unbalanced or excessive concentrations of power in government by adopting a constitution in which legislative, executive, and judicial powers are largely divided among separate branches, with each having some power to check the abuses of the others. Legislative powers were further divided between two legislative bodies. Some powers were delegated to the central national government, which others were reserved to the component states or the people.

Around the end of the 19th century, however, it became increasingly apparent that excessive and unbalanced concentrations of power in the private sector could subvert the system of checks and balances in government, and the first anti-trust laws were passed to try to provide a check on those undue influences. Unfortunately, such legislation has not been entirely effective, and we now face a situation in which to an intolerable degree the real powers of government are being exercised not by constitutional bodies but by secret cabals based in the private sector but extending throughout government, cabals which are increasingly coherent and increasingly abusive of the rights of the people, including the right to have government be accountable to them and not to a power elite. The continued constitutional development of this society will therefore require the development of a new, more sophisticated system of checks and balances that extends throughout the private sector as well as the public and does not entirely rely on market forces.

Much of the abuse that has developed arises from the assumption by the national or central government of powers not delegated to it under the Constitution, and the erosion of the powers of the States with respect to that central government. Some of those powers are arguably best exercised by the central government, but without constitutional authority even the exercise of reasonable powers becomes an abuse and leads to an escalating cycle of abuses as more and more people resist such intrusions, creating a crisis of legitimacy not only for those unconstitutional activities but for the constitutional ones as well. If government is to be brought into compliance with the Constitution, then there will have to be a carefully planned program of repealing or overturning unconstitutional legislation and official acts, combined with a number of amendments that will provide the needed authority for legislation and acts which are best exercised by the central government, and the re- enactment of legislation based on such amendments. That will leave a difficult problem of dealing with all those actions conducted without constitutional authority before the amendments are adopted. Making the amendments retroactive is not permissible under constitutional principles, which exclude not only ex post facto laws but ex post facto amendments as well.

Of Rights Natural and Constitutional –

Under the theory of the social contract, those rights which the individual brings with him upon entering the social contract are natural, and those which arise out of the social contract are contractual. Those contractual rights arising out of the constitution are constitutional rights. However, natural rights are also constitutional rights.

The fundamental natural rights are life, liberty, and property. However, it is necessary to be somewhat more specific as to what these rights include. Therefore, constitution framers usually expand them into such rights as the right of speech and publication, the right to assemble peaceably, the right to keep and bear arms, the right to travel over public roadways, and so forth. The exercise of such natural rights may be restricted to the extent that they come into conflict with the exercise of the natural rights of other members of society, but only to the minimum degree needed to resolve such conflict.

Such natural rights are inalienable, meaning that a person cannot delegate them or give them away, even if he wants to do so. That means that no constitutional provision which delegated to government at any level the power to take away such rights would be valid, even if adopted as an amendment through a proper amendment process. Such rights apply to all levels of government, federal, state, or local. Their enumeration in the constitution does not establish them, it only recognizes them. Although they are restrictions on the power of government, the repeal of the provisions recognizing them would not remove the restrictions or allow the delegation of any power to deny them. The people do not have that power, and therefore cannot delegate it to government.

Yet constitutions recognize the power to deprive persons of their rights under due process of law. Strictly speaking, a person may not be deprived of such rights in the sense of taking them away. Natural rights are never lost. Their exercise can, however, be restricted or, to use the proper legal term, disabled. While some might question the practical distinction between losing a right and having it disabled, that distinction is important. A right which is disabled under due process may also be re- enabled by the removal of that disability, and the disability is removed if the social contract is broken and persons return to the state of nature.

Due process is not defined in the written U.S. Constitution, which points out the fact that the constitution consists not only of the written document itself, but the body of court precedents, legal definitions and traditions, and prevailing civic processes as of the date the written document was ratified, which is called pre-ratification Common Law. It also includes the commentaries and records of the debates of the framers and ratifiers insofar as they provide guidance on how to interpret the provisions of the written document. The constitution is further expanded to include the body of court precedents since ratification which interpret its provisions, called post-ratification common law, but only insofar as those court precedents are consistent with the written document, pre-ratification Common Law, and the original intent of its framers and ratifiers.

Certain rights, therefore, such as the rights of due process and the right to vote, are contractual. They have no meaning in a state of nature, only within the context of a civil society. And they are defined within Common Law rather than in the written Constitution.

Due process requires, among other things, that any disablement of a right be done only by a court of competent jurisdiction in response to a petition to do so, and after arguments and evidence are heard from all sides to support or refute the granting of such petition. The only rights which may be disabled by statute and without a specific court proceeding are the rights of majority, or adulthood. Common Law recognizes that persons are born with disabilities of minority, and constitutions and laws typically define some age at which those disabilities are removed, such as age 18 in the United States for purposes of voting, although it may allow for such disabilities to be removed earlier, or retained past the usual age of majority, upon petition to do so. Due process therefore requires that each and every right which is to be disabled be argued separately on its merits, and the ruling or sentence of the court explicitly disable each such right.

This requirement therefore comes into conflict with legislation which prescribes the disablement of certain rights for persons convicted of certain types of crimes, such as the right to vote or to keep and bear arms, without that disablement being made an explicit part of the sentence or the sentencing hearing. Such legislation must be considered unconstitutional, for even though there may be due process in the case which results in the explicit disablement of the rights to certain liberties or properties, those disablements are openly stated and argued, and the statutory inclusion of other disablements that are not made explicit or separately argued is a denial of due process.

Duties under the Social Contract –

While a constitution prescribes the legal rights of individuals and the powers of government, the social contract also includes certain duties which members assume upon entry. Those duties include the duty to avoid infringing on the rights of other members, to obey just laws, to comply with and help enforce just contracts, to serve on juries, and to defend the community.

It is important to recognize that although individuals have a right of self-defense in the state of nature, when they enter into society under the social contract, the pooling of that right transforms it into a duty to defend the community, and therefore to risk or sacrifice one’s life, liberty, or property if such defense should require it. The right of self-defense is no longer supreme, although it survives the transition to society as a duty to defend oneself as part of the community. Pacifism in the face of mortal danger to oneself or others is therefore not consistent with the social contract, and persons who insist on that position must be considered not to be members of society or entitled to its benefits, and if they live in the same country, have the status of resident aliens.

This duty implies not only individual action to defend the community, but the duty to do so in concert with others as an organized and trained militia. Since public officials may themselves pose a threat to the community, such militias may be subject to call-up by officials, but may not be subject to their control except insofar as they are acting in accordance with the constitution and laws pursuant thereto, and in defense of the community. Since any official designated to call up the militia may be an enemy of the constitution and laws, and may fail to issue a call-up when appropriate, militias must remain able to be called up by any credible person and independent of official control.

Another important duty is jury duty. Since officials may be corrupt or abusive or their power, grand jurors have the duty not only to bring an indictment upon evidence presented to it by a prosecutor, but to conduct their own investigations and if necessary, to appoint their own prosecutors to conduct a trial on the evidence. Petit jurors have the duty to not only follow the instructions of the judge to bring a verdict on the “facts” in a case, but to rule on all issues before the court, overriding the judge if necessary. No matter how despicable an accused defendant might be or how heinous his acts, they have the duty to find that accused not guilty if the court lacks jurisdiction, if the rights of the accused were seriously violated in the course of the investigation or trial, or if the law under which the accused is charged is misapplied to the case or is unconstitutional; and to find the law unconstitutional if it is in violation of the constitutional rights of the accused, if it is not based on any power delegated to the government, if it is unequally enforced, or if it is so vague that honest persons could disagree on how to obey or enforce it. Since most jury instructions now discourage petit juries from exercising that duty, almost all convictions brought by such juries in which there was an issue in law must be considered invalid, due to jury tampering by the court.

Governmental Powers and Duties –

Some critics of social contract theory argue that there are some powers of government that are not derived from powers of the people or delegated to the government by them. However, a careful analysis will show that all powers exercised by government derive either from the people as a whole, or from some subset of the people, or from one person, and that only the first are legitimate. The power to tax? Persons in the state of nature have the power to tax themselves, although they would not ordinarily think of it that way.

Most written constitutions prescribe the powers delegated to government, but are not always explicit about the duties. It is implied that the government has the duty to exercise its powers wisely and pursuant to the purposes of the social contract. But some persons argue that the power to act is also the power not to act. Could the government choose not to exercise its power to conduct elections, or to defend the country, or to maintain a sound currency, or to organize and train the militias of each state? No. Except in case of emergency, and only for the duration of the emergency, government must exercise the powers delegated to it according to their purposes to the best of its ability. That is its duty. Just as it is the duty of every member of society to exercise his or her powers in service of the community.

References: Ernest Barker, ed., Social Contract, Oxford U. Press, London, 1960. Contains the essays: John Locke, An Essay Concerning the True Original, Extent, and End of Civil Government; David Hume, Of the Original Contract; Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract.

James Madison, Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention. The definitive record of the proceedings of the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, The Federalist.

Bernard Schwartz, The Roots of the Bill of Rights, Chelsea House, New York, 1980.

Leonard W. Levy, Original Intent and the Framers’ Constitution, 1988, Macmillan, New York. Scholar examines “original intent” doctrine and its alternatives.

Stephen P. Halbrook, That Every Man Be Armed, 1984, Independent Institute, 134 98th Av, Oakland, CA 94603.

Clarence Streit, Atlantic Union Now, 1962, Freedom & Union Press, Washington, DC.

**** The Constitution Society gives its permission for this last section (“The Social Compact & Constitutional Republics”) to be copied with attribution for noncommercial purposes.

This post includes a compilation of two previous works:
I. My original composition

II. The Intro about Social Compact: Martin Kelly, “The Social Compact,” ThoughtCo., June 26, 2017. Referenced at: https://www.thoughtco.com/social-contract-in-politics-105424

III. “The Social Compact & Constitutional Republics,” 2007 Constitution Society. http://www.constitution.org/soclcont.htm

Other Resource: “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union” (The Avalon Project; Yale Law School) — http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/csa_scarsec.asp

Advertisements

NULLIFICATION: The Truths and the Fallacies

Nullify Now - North Carolina (Thomas Jefferson quote)    by Diane Rufino

PART I:  Nullification is the Rightful Remedy to Limit the Federal Government to its Constitutional Objects

Nullification is the theory that says that actions of the federal government that are passed, imposed, or exercised in excess or abuse of the express authority granted in the Constitution are not enforceable. If there is no proper foundation for the action, then that action is null and void and a state has the right, in fact the duty, to refuse to enforce it on its people. Nullification is an essential principle to ensure that the People are insulated from federal tyranny.

Nullification is a legal theory rooted firmly in constitutional history and based on the very limitations articulated in the US Constitution, specifically the Tenth Amendment and Article VI, Section 2 (“Supremacy Clause”). It is based on the federal nature of our government (separation of powers; “dual and competing sovereigns”), on the Supremacy Clause (only those laws made “in pursuance to the Constitution” are supreme and therefore trump state law), and most strongly, on the compact nature of the Constitution (the states formed the Constitution as a compact, agreeing to delegate some of their sovereign power – certain specified powers – to the federal government and reserving all other powers to themselves. Each state, as a party to the compact, has a “right to judge for itself” the extent of the federal government’s powers).  The compact – the social compact – that the states signed in forming the Union in 1789, is similar to contract law. Contracts, as we all know, outline the obligations and benefits to each of the signing parties. The parties are likewise bound by the express language of the contract. We understand this theory and this issue of contract construction as we all have signed contracts. If one party attempts to change the terms or exceed authority under the contract, the other party can either chose to ignore the perverted exercise of contract power or can break the contract altogether.

The fundamental basis for government and law in this country, as in most societies, is the concept of the social compact (or social contract). Social compact is an extension of Natural Law (upon which our Declaration is based) which states that human beings begin as individuals in a state of nature and then organize into societies for mutual benefit. They create a society by establishing a contract whereby they agree to live together in harmony for their mutual benefit, after which they are said to live in a state of society. This contract involves the retaining of certain natural rights, an acceptance of restrictions of certain liberties, the assumption of certain duties, and the pooling of certain powers to be exercised collectively. James Madison confirmed the nature of the US Constitution as a social compact in Federalist No. 39.

The key features of a social compact are: (i) retention of natural rights; (ii) common defense of those rights; and (iii) limitation of government power.

Now, it is true that the compact assures that the Constitution and the laws made in pursuance to it (Article VI) shall be valued as the supreme law of the land, but the converse is equally true. All power not expressly granted is reserved by the States and on those objects, state law is supreme law. This is our system of dual sovereignty. That is the brilliant design feature of our American government system which our Founders believed would ensure the protection of our God-given rights. But unfortunately, our Founders thought the government could be trusted to respect its boundaries, to protect that “precious jewel” that is liberty. They believed that if the branches of government were “advised” that their particular actions were unconstitutional, they would quickly remedy the situation and undo what they had done.

Hah, fat chance that was going to happen. It was only a few years into the operation of the federal government when it attempted, successfully too, to enlarge its powers and redefine the terms of the Constitution. And that’s when our most important Founders – Thomas Jefferson and James Madison – had to remind state leaders why we fought the Revolutionary War in the first place and what their fears had been when considering ratifying the Constitution. That’s when Jeffersonian Nullification was born. It was born out of the notion that the federal government must not be permitted to hold a monopoly on constitutional interpretation, for if it has the unchecked power to judge the extent of its own powers, it will continue to grow and encroach on the rights and liberties of the People and the States.

In his written assurances to the States that the Constitution was delegating only limited powers from them to a federal government, Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 78: “Every act of a delegated authority, contrary to the tenor of the commission under which it is exercised, is void. No legislative act, therefore, contrary to the Constitution, can be valid. To deny this, would be to affirm, that the deputy is greater than his principal; that the servant is above his master; that the representatives of the people are superior to the people themselves; that men acting by virtue of powers, may do not only what their powers do not authorize, but what they forbid.”

In order that the States (and the People) be completely assured of what precise objects that their sovereign power was being delegated to the government for, James Madison explained it in the clearest of terms in Federalist No. 45:

The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce; with which last the power of taxation will, for the most part, be connected. The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State.

      The operations of the federal government will be most extensive and important in times of war and danger; those of the State governments, in times of peace and security. As the former periods will probably bear a small proportion to the latter, the State governments will here enjoy another advantage over the federal government. The more adequate, indeed, the federal powers may be rendered to the national defense, the less frequent will be those scenes of danger which might favor their ascendancy over the governments of the particular States.”    

In Federalist No. 26, Alexander Hamilton wrote: “The State legislatures, who will always be not only vigilant but suspicious and jealous guardians of the rights of the citizens against encroachments from the federal government, will constantly have their attention awake to the conduct of the national rulers, and will be ready enough, if anything improper appears, to sound the alarm to the people, and not only to be the VOICE, but, if necessary, the ARM of their discontent.”

And with this duty to protect its citizens against encroachments from the federal government – to be both their VOICE and their ARM of discontent – we see the seeds that were sown for Nullification and Interposition (the duty to intercede and prevent the usurpation and “arrest the evil”).

Our Founders understood the nature of power….  Power can only be checked by power.

In the Kentucky Resolutions of 1799, which questioned the constitutionality of the Alien & Sedition Acts, Thomas Jefferson wrote:

If those who administer the general government be permitted to transgress the limits fixed by the federal compact (ie, the US Constitution), but a total disregard to the special delegations of powers therein contained, an annihilation of the state governments, and the creation, upon their ruins, of a general consolidated government, will be the inevitable consequence: That the principle and construction, contended by the state legislatures, that the general government is the exclusive judge of the extent of the powers delegated to it, stop nothing short of despotism – since the discretion of those who administer the government, and not the Constitution, would be the measure of their powers. That the several states who formed that instrument, being sovereign and independent, have the unquestionable right to judge of its infraction; and that a Nullification, by those sovereignties, of all unauthorized acts done under color of that instrument, is the RIGHTFUL REMEDY:  That this commonwealth does, under the most deliberate reconsideration, declare that the said Alien and Sedition laws are, in their opinion, palpable violations of the Constitution…

In the Virginia Resolutions of 1798, also addressing the unconstitutionality of the Acts, James Madison wrote:

That this Assembly doth explicitly and peremptorily declare, that it views the powers of the Federal Government, as resulting from the compact, to which the states (alone) are the parties, as limited by the plain sense and intention of the instrument constituting that compact; as no farther valid than they are authorized by the grants (of power) enumerated in that compact; and that in case of a deliberate, palpable, and dangerous exercise of other powers, not granted by said compact, the states who are parties thereto have the right, and are duty-bound, to INTERPOSE for arresting the progress of the evil, and for maintaining within their respective limits, the authorities, rights, and liberties appertaining to them…

       That the General Assembly expresses its deep regret that a spirit has been manifested by the federal government to enlarge its powers by forced constructions of the constitutional charter which defines them; and that indications have appeared of a design to expound certain general phrases (which, having been copied from the very limited grant of powers in the former Articles of Confederation, were the less liable to be misconstrued) so as to destroy the meaning and effect of the particular enumeration which necessarily explains, and limits the general phrases; and so as to consolidate the states, by degrees, into one sovereignty, the obvious tendency and inevitable result of which would be, to transform the present republican system of the United states into an absolute, or at best, a mixed monarchy..

Historians and constitutionalists explain the Jeffersonian theory of Nullification in a way that is slightly misleading. They teach us that constitutional theory allows a state the right (and perhaps even the duty) to nullify, or invalidate, any federal law which that state has determined to be outside the powers delegated to the government under the Constitution. In other words, they say, a state has the right to determine when a federal law is unconstitutional and therefore decide not to enforce it.

Nullification is actually simpler than that. We live in a country founded on the notion of Individual Sovereignty – that man is supreme and government flows from the sovereign rights and powers of the individual. In our free society, founded on the supremacy of individual rights, constitutions were drafted to list those powers that the people agreed to delegate to their government for the protection of their rights and the orderly management of their communities. The US Constitution was no different. All other powers were retained by the People. Laws are only enforceable in such a constitutional republic when there is express authority granted by the People to do so. Consequently, when the federal government passes a law that exceeds or abuses power delegated in the Constitution, that law is AUTOMATICALLY  NULL and VOID.  It is automatically unenforceable on a free people. Judges are SUPPOSED to declare it void (to put that official check on the legislative branch and force them to repeal the law), but even if they don’t, the law is already null and void.  The federal judiciary was originally intended to be a “check” and was supposed to “advise” only. It was intended to be the weakest of all branches.

So, under the doctrine of Nullification, the states don’t really declare laws to be null and void.  Rather, they recognize that certain laws are null and void. Then they exercise their duty to maintain the integrity of our free society by refusing to enforce any unconstitutional law on their citizens.

PART 2:  Nullification is a Constitutional Principle, Exercised by our Founding Generations

There is no easier way for tyranny to take hold than for a People to remain silent when they know, or should know, what their rights are. There is no easier way for a government to usurp the natural rights of a People to govern themselves than to stand by and let that government legislate when it has no authority to do so.

The early colonists certainly didn’t miss an opportunity to stand up for their rights. In fact, the Sons of Liberty formed (much like today’s Tea Party and Tenth Amendment Center) to point out where Britain was violating their rights and to help organize opposition and protest. Samuel Adams, the leader of the Sons of Liberty in Boston, wrote the following in 1769 with these words:

DEARLY BELOVED,

REVOLVING time hath brought about another anniversary of the repeal of the odious Stamp Act,—an act framed to divest us of our liberties and to bring us to slavery, poverty, and misery. The resolute stand made by the Sons of Liberty against the detestable policy had more effect in bringing on the repeal than any conviction in the Parliament of Great Britain of the injustice and iniquity of the act . It was repealed from principles of convenience to Old England, and accompanied with a declaration of their right to tax us; and since, the same Parliament have passed acts which, if obeyed in the Colonies, will be equally fatal. Although the people of Great Britain be only fellow-subjects, they have of late assumed a power to compel us to buy at their market such things as we want of European produce and manufacture; and, at the same time, have taxed many of the articles for the express purpose of a revenue; and, for the collection of the duties, have sent fleets, armies, commissioners, guard acostas, judges of admiralty, and a host of petty officers, whose insolence and rapacity are become intolerable. Our cities are garrisoned; the peace and order which heretofore dignified our streets are exchanged for the horrid blasphemies and outrages of soldiers; our trade is obstructed ; our vessels and cargoes, the effects of industry, violently seized; and, in a word, every species of injustice that a wicked and debauched Ministry could invent is now practiced against the most sober, industrious, and loyal people that ever lived in society. The joint supplications of all the Colonies have been rejected; and letters and mandates, in terms of the highest affront and indignity, have been transmitted from little and insignificant servants of the Crown to his Majesty’s grand and august sovereignties in America.

These things being so, it becomes us, my brethren, to walk worthy of our vocation, to use every lawful mean to frustrate the wicked designs of our enemies at home and abroad, and to unite against the evil and pernicious machinations of those who would destroy us.”

Son of Liberty

From a small, secret group of agitators in Boston and in Connecticut, the Sons of Liberty grew to the point that there was a group in every one of the thirteen colonies. They organized demonstrations, circulated petitions, published newspaper articles, distributed flyers and handbills, and in general did all they could to bring the message of liberty to the colonists. But it was their simple acts of civil disobedience – like protesting a tax on tea by dumping 342 chests of tea into the Boston Harbor, protesting the tax on documents (Stamp Act) by forcing officials to the Crown to resign or to refrain from unloading ships from Britain, or forming angry mobs in response to the Quartering Act – which prevented the enforcement of some of the acts of Parliament that the colonists found intolerable. It was when the King responded with further punitive and oppressive measures – which Jefferson would refer to as “abuses and usurpations” – it was clear the colonies would have to declare their independence in order to remain free.

By frustrating the enforcement of the Stamp Act and the other intolerable, the Sons of Liberty exercised their early right of nullification. They recognized that the British Parliament had no right to legislate for them when they were not provided representation, as guaranteed in their English Bill of Rights of 1689. Any piece of legislation that is passed without proper authority is automatically null and void and cannot be rightfully enforced. This is the basis of the doctrine of Nullification. The Sons of Liberty stood up for this principle and energized the colonists to stand up for their rights and especially their right NOT TO SUBMIT to laws that were not properly passed in accordance with their government charters.

Nullification, as you can see, is an important check and balance on the power of the federal government, which seeks, at every turn, to enlarge and concentrate its powers and to pervert the meaning and intent of the Constitution. There has been no greater enemy than the federal courts which now openly, flagrantly, and arrogantly declare that the Constitution is a “living, breathing document” that is to be re-interpreted willy nilly and as they, the judges, believe will best reflect and serve the social norms of the day.

In fact, Nullification is probably the most important check and balance of them all. Dual and co-equal sovereigns, each jealously guarding their respective sphere of power, will maintain that delicate balance of power that our Founding Fathers designed and which the States themselves agreed to. It’s the same way that two skilled attorneys, adversarial in nature (the prosecution and the defense) will aggressively provide that justice is served. And it’s the same way that two political parties, one to the left in its ideology and the other to the right, will ultimately assure that policy remains somewhat in the middle so that our society is tolerable for everyone.

In Federalist No. 33, Alexander Hamilton asked and answered an important question: “If the federal government should overpass the just bounds of its authority and make a tyrannical use of its powers, the people, whose creature it is, must appeal to the standard they have formed, and take such measures to redress the injury done to the Constitution as the exigency may suggest and prudence justify.”  Hamilton doesn’t limit the measures that people can use to redress the situation when government oversteps the bounds of its authority.  According to Hamilton, the remedy should be in proportion to the violation. If we are to take Hamilton at his word for the government’s taxing power, we should, with the same enthusiasm, take him at his word for the ability to push the government back within the bound of the Constitution.

Referring to the title of this article, the truth is that Nullification is a valid constitutional doctrine reserved “in case of a deliberate, palpable, and dangerous exercise of other powers, not granted by said compact (US Constitution).”  James Madison, Virginia Resolutions of 1798. The states, who wrote, debated, amended (Bill of Rights), and ratified the Constitution to create the federal government are the rightful parties who have the authority, and are indeed “duty-bound, to interpose (intercede) for arresting the progress of the evil, and for maintaining within their respective limits, the authorities, rights, and liberties appertaining to them.”  Virginia Resolutions of 1798.  The truth is that Nullification, while not under that express term, was an important principle and an important tool to prevent abusive and unconstitutional laws from being enforced on the colonists/colonies and then on the citizens of the various “united” States and the states themselves when the US Constitution was adopted. The fallacy is that the Constitution itself, through the Supremacy Clause, renders Nullification an illegitimate remedy. Thefallacy is that the Supreme Court, as the ultimate authority on the intent and meaning of the Constitution, has rejected the doctrine. The fallacy is that Nullification was the favored state remedy of slavery proponents and white supremists. And the fallacy is that the Civil War distinguished rightful remedies to limit government power.

Part 3:  Opponents of Nullification Attempt to Discredit our Founding Principles With Various False Criticisms

            A.  The Misrepresentation of the Supremacy Clause and Proper Constitutional Bounds 

Critics are quick to say that the theory of nullification has never been legally upheld and in fact, the Supreme Court expressly rejected it – in Ableman v. Booth, 1959, and Cooper v. Aaron, 1958. They say that the courts have spoken on the subject and have held that under the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, federal law is superior to state law, and that under Article III of the Constitution, the federal judiciary has the final power to interpret the Constitution. Therefore, the critics conclude, that the power to make final decisions about the constitutionality of federal laws lies with the federal courts, not the states, and the states do not have the power to nullify federal laws but rather, are duty-bound to obey them.

The fatal flaw in their arguments, however, is that they believe that the judiciary, a branch of the same federal government that tends to overstep their constitutional bounds, is somehow above the law and not subject to the remedy of Nullification as the other branches are. As will be discussed later, the federal judiciary was the first branch to enlarge its powers, in the case of Marbury v. Madison.

Another fatal flaw in their argument is that somehow, the Supremacy Clause is a rubber stamp that labels every federal law, every federal court decision, and every federal action “supreme.” They, and especially the justices of the Supreme Court, refer to the Supremacy Clause as if it were the Midas Touch – a magical power that turns EVERYTHING the federal government does, including by all three branches, to gold. Nothing is farther than the truth. The Supremacy Clause states simply: “This Constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; …shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby…”  The is no debate that the Constitution, as originally drafted and defended, and as intended and ratified, designed a government of limited powers. Therefore it follows that only laws passed to legislate for the limited functions listed in the Constitution are supreme. Regarding objects and designs not expressly listed in the Constitution, the Ninth and Tenth Amendment remind us that they are reserved to the People or the States, respectively, and the federal government can claim no such supremacy. The Supremacy Clause states a preemptive doctrine that asserts sovereignty just as equally as the Ninth and Tenth Amendments assert sovereignty.

Hamilton continued in Federalist No. 33: “It is said that the laws of the Union are to be the supreme law of the land. But what inference can be drawn from this, or what would they amount to, if they were not to be supreme? It is evident they would amount to nothing. A law, by the very meaning of the term, includes supremacy. It is a rule which those to whom it is prescribed are bound to observe. This results from every political association. If individuals enter into a state of society, the laws of that society must be the supreme regulator of their conduct. If a number of political societies enter into a larger political society, the laws which the latter may enact, pursuant to the powers entrusted to it by its constitution, must necessarily be supreme over those societies, and the individuals of whom they are composed. But it will not follow from this doctrine that acts of the large society which are not pursuant to its constitutional powers, but which are invasions of the residuary authorities of the smaller societies, will become the supreme law of the land. These will be merely acts of usurpation, and will deserve to be treated as such. Hence we perceive that the clause which declares the supremacy of the laws of the Union, like the one we have just before considered, only declares a truth, which flows immediately and necessarily from the institution of a federal government. It will not, I presume, have escaped observation, that it expressly confines this supremacy to laws made pursuant to the Constitution; which I mention merely as an instance of caution in the convention; since that limitation would have been to be understood, though it had not been expressed.

Critics also like to discredit Nullification by associating it with the more controversial episodes in our history.  A popular claim is that Nullification was used to perpetuate slavery because it was embraced by Southern leaders who did not want blacks to take their place as free and equal men in their societies. They especially link Nullification to South Carolina’s colorful Senator John C. Calhoun who was not only a vocal proponent of the doctrine and used it to justify his state’s refusal to recognize the Tariff of Abominations in 1832, but he was a strong supporter of slavery and a white supremist. They like to say that Nullification led to the tariff crisis (or Nullification Crisis of 1832) pitting the South against the North and eventually precipitating the Civil War. They allege that the Civil War settled the question of Nullification.

There are so many flaws in these arguments.

Between 1798 and the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, several states threatened or attempted nullification of various federal laws, including the Tariff of 1828, the Tariff of 1832, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, and even the 1854 ruling by the Wisconsin Supreme Court which held that Wisconsin didn’t have to comply with the Fugitive Slave Act. None of these efforts were legally upheld, although all were successful in providing the relief they sought.

In the late 1820′s, the nation suffered an economic downturn, with South Carolina being hit especially hard. The government enacted high protective tariffs (high tariffs on imports, particularly finished goods). The North, industrial as it was, manufactured finished goods but needed raw materials (such as cotton, sugar, etc) while the South, an agrarian society, purchased almost all finished products from imports. It also made most of its money from its export of cotton, tobacco, and sugar. The tariff, as the South viewed it, harmed the South while at the same time providing an enormous benefit to the North. With the higher prices on imported finished goods, it had the effect of “protecting” the products of the North. In other words, the finished goods of the North would be preferred over imports because of the price. The South would be forced to buy products from the North, thus enriching the North. On the other hand, because of the United States’ high protective tariffs, other countries retaliated by imposing high tariffs on American imports, which greatly harmed the South. To compete, the South had to lower her prices. Like a vulture, the Northern industries noticed that Southern cotton, sugar, etc weren’t selling and took advantage of the fact that they could buy her goods at reduced prices. South Carolina was opposed most vehemently to the protective tariffs. South Carolina believed that a “common government” should serve both regions equally and in this case, it was harming the South in order to enrich the North. South Carolina alleged that the tariffs were extremely detrimental to her well-being.

In the summer of 1828, South Carolina state representative Robert Barnwell Rhett appealed to the governor and to his constituents to resist the majority in Congress regarding the high tariff (referred to as the “Tariff of Abominations”). Rhett emphasized the danger of doing nothing:

But if you are doubtful of yourselves – if you are not prepared to follow up your principles wherever they may lead, to their very last consequence – if you love life better than honor,…. prefer ease to perilous liberty and glory, then awake not!  Stir not!  Impotent resistance will add vengeance to your ruin. Live in smiling peace with your insatiable Oppressors, and die with the noble consolation that your submissive patience will survive triumphant your beggary and despair.”

Also in 1828, John Calhoun published his “Exposition and Protest,” although anonymously, in which he discussed Nullification. (He was Andrew Jackson’s Vice President at the time and Jackson was strongly opposed to Nullification):

If it be conceded, as it must be by everyone who is the least conversant with our institutions, that the sovereign powers delegated are divided between the General and State Governments, and that the latter hold their portion by the same tenure as the former, it would seem impossible to deny to the States the right of deciding on the infractions of their powers, and the proper remedy to be applied for their correction. The right of judging, in such cases, is an essential attribute of sovereignty, of which the States cannot be divested without losing their sovereignty itself, and being reduced to a subordinate corporate condition. In fact, to divide power, and to give to one of the parties the exclusive right of judging of the portion allotted to each, is, in reality, not to divide it at all; and to reserve such exclusive right to the General Government (it matters not by what department to be exercised), is to convert it, in fact, into a great consolidated government, with unlimited powers, and to divest the States, in reality, of all their rights. It is impossible to understand the force of terms, and to deny so plain a conclusion.”

In 1832, inspired by Calhoun’s defense of Nullification as the rightful remedy to not suffer unconstitutional federal legislation (he strongly supported and promoted the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, respectively), South Carolina decided to use the doctrine to escape the oppression of the tariff.  Its position was that Nullification could be used by a state to resist a federal law that was not specifically authorized by the U.S. Constitution.  South Carolina then assembled a democratically-elected convention and issued an Ordinance of Nullification. This ordinance declared that the federal Tariffs of 1828 and 1832 were unconstitutional and therefore null and void within the sovereign boundaries of South Carolina.

The Ordinance of Nullification read:

Whereas the Congress of the United States by various acts, purporting to be acts laying duties and imposts on foreign imports, but in reality intended for the protection of domestic manufactures and the giving of bounties to classes and individuals engaged in particular employments, at the expense and to the injury and oppression of other classes and individuals, and by wholly exempting from taxation certain foreign commodities, such as are not produced or manufactured in the United States, to afford a pretext for imposing higher and excessive duties on articles similar to those intended to be protected, bath exceeded its just powers under the constitution, which confers on it no authority to afford such protection, and bath violated the true meaning and intent of the constitution, which provides for equality in imposing the burdens of taxation upon the several States and portions of the confederacy: And whereas the said Congress, exceeding its just power to impose taxes and collect revenue for the purpose of effecting and accomplishing the specific objects and purposes which the constitution of the United States authorizes it to effect and accomplish, hath raised and collected unnecessary revenue for objects unauthorized by the constitution.

      We, therefore, the people of the State of South Carolina, in convention assembled, do declare and ordain and it is hereby declared and ordained, that the several acts and parts of acts of the Congress of the United States, purporting to be laws for the imposing of duties and imposts on the importation of foreign commodities, and now having actual operation and effect within the United States, and, more especially, an act entitled “An act in alteration of the several acts imposing duties on imports,” approved on the nineteenth day of May, one thousand eight hundred and twenty-eight and also an act entitled “An act to alter and amend the several acts imposing duties on imports,” approved on the fourteenth day of July, one thousand eight hundred and thirty-two, are unauthorized by the constitution of the United States, and violate the true meaning and intent thereof and are null, void, and no law, nor binding upon this State, its officers or citizens; and all promises, contracts, and obligations, made or entered into, or to be made or entered into, with purpose to secure the duties imposed by said acts, and all judicial proceedings which shall be hereafter had in affirmance thereof, are and shall be held utterly null and void.”

The Ordinance of Nullification was not received well and soon escalated to what came to be referred to as the Nullification of 1832. Andrew Jackson was inflamed and was intent on arresting Calhoun and having him hang in Washington DC. He also had Congress pass the Force Bill which authorized the use of military force against any state that resisted the tariff acts. It was feared that South Carolina would secede if pushed, and so, the members of the US Senate and then House came together to work out a solution. In 1833, Senator Henry Clay and Senator Calhoun proposed a compromise bill to resolve the Crisis. The Tariff of 1833 (also known as the Compromise Tariff of 1833), would gradually reduce the tariff rates over a 10-year period to the levels set in the Tariff of 1816 – an average of 20% lower.  The compromise bill was accepted by South Carolina and passed the US Congress and thus effectively ended the Nullification Crisis.  South Carolina got the relief it sought.

As a side note, Abraham Lincoln, who ran on the Republican Platform for president in the election of 1860, was originally a Whig and was still a Whig at heart. He was a true follower of Senator Henry Cabot Lodge.  As such, he was a strong supporter of protective tariffs and promised to raise the tariff to the 1828 rate. Is it any wonder why tensions in the South were elevated with the election of Lincoln?

            B.  The Misrepresentation of Nullification with respect to Slavery

One of the biggest criticisms is that that Nullification was asserted for the purpose of perpetuating slavery. The record, however, is absolutely clear on this issue. Frustration of the federal Fugitive Slave Law was accomplished by nullification efforts all over the North and because of the success of those efforts, slaves were encouraged to seek their freedom and the movement to end slavery was able to gain momentum.

Although the concepts of States’ Rights and Nullification are historically associated with the South, they were employed by northern states to resist the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. While the southern states defied the federal government by refusing to accept the abominable tariffs, the northern states defied the government by refusing to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act, which they believed was an unconstitutional commandeering of the state and at its core, a repugnant law that offended their conscience. Under this law, stringent measures were imposed to catch runaway slaves. These included:

  • Penalizing federal officials that did not enforce the law
  • Rewarding federal officials that did enforce law
  • Requiring free citizens to help capture runaway slaves
  • Fining or imprisoning citizens helping runaways escape
  • Prohibiting runaways from testifying on their own behalf in court
  • Denying jury trials to runaways

Special federal commissions, not courts, worked with U.S. marshals to handle runaway cases. Commissioners and marshals who failed to hold captured runaways could be sued, thus compelling them to enforce the law. They received $10 for every runaway delivered to a claimant, but only $5 for cases in which the runaway was freed. This provided a financial incentive to send even free black men and women into slavery. The law not only jeopardized the liberty of every black citizen, but it also infringed on the freedom of white citizens by forcing them to hunt for runaways against their will.

State and local governments openly defied the law:

1).  The legislatures of Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Michigan, and Wisconsin passed “personal liberty laws” making it nearly impossible to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act in those states.

2).  The Wisconsin Supreme Court declared that the Tenth Amendment protected states from repugnant federal laws like the Fugitive Slave Act, specifically citing the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 as the basis for its opinion.

3).  The Chicago City Council called northern congressmen who supported the act “traitors” like “Benedict Arnold and Judas Iscariot.”

4).  When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states could not free federal prisoners convicted of helping runaways, the Wisconsin legislature called “this assumption of jurisdiction by the federal judiciary… an act of undelegated power, void, and of no force…”  (The Wisconsin Supreme Court nullified the Supreme Court’s decision.  See discussion below)

In addition to local governments, the people themselves took matters into their own hands:

1).  In Syracuse, New York, in 1851 a jury effectively nullified the law by acquitting all but one of 26 people who had been arrested for freeing William “Jerry” Henry. Among those 26 persons arrested and tried was a US Senator and the former Governor of NY.  Jerry ultimately escaped to Canada.

2).  When Joshua Glover was captured by U.S. marshals in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the sheriff supported local opinion by freeing Glover and jailing the marshals; Glover also escaped to Canada.

3).  In Pennsylvania, a mob of free blacks killed a slaveholder attempting to capture a runaway.

4).  Military force was needed to disperse a mass meeting after a black man was apprehended in Detroit.

5).  Throughout Ohio, town meetings branded any northern official who helped enforce the law “an enemy of the human race.”

6).  Other cities and states refused to help enforce the law simply because it was too expensive. Returning one runaway to the South cost the city of Boston $5,000. Boston officials never enforced the law again. All of these acts of defiance and nullification were ironically adopted from principles first introduced and later invoked by southerners.

When Wisconsin residents refused to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law and return escaped slave, Glover, an ensuing series of arrests would give the state Supreme Court the opportunity to use Nullification to proclaim the law’s unconstitutionality. The case would be known as In re Booth.

What has become known as the Booth case is actually a series of decisions from the Wisconsin Supreme Court beginning in 1854 and one from the U.S. Supreme Court,Ableman v. Booth, 62 U.S. 514 (1859), leading to a final published decision by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in Ableman v. Booth, 11 Wis. 501 (1859). These decisions reflect Wisconsin’s attempted nullification of the federal fugitive slave law, the expansion of the state’s rights movement and Wisconsin’s defiance of federal judicial authority. The Wisconsin Supreme Court in Booth unanimously declared the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned that decision but the Wisconsin Supreme Court refused to file the U.S. Court’s mandate upholding the fugitive slave law. That mandate has never been filed.

When the U.S. Constitution was drafted, slavery existed in this country. Article IV, Section 2 provided that:  ”No person held to service or labor in one state under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.”

Based on this provision, Congress in 1793 passed a law that gave slave owners the power to have a runaway slave arrested in any state and returned.  The law remained intact until 1850, by which time the moral sentiment of the North against slavery had become aroused; the Liberty Party had been organized, the underground railroad had flourished and many northern men and women refused to act as slave catchers or assist in perpetuating slavery. Because of the increasing difficulty the slave holders faced in reclaiming runaway slaves, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. The law placed the mechanism for capturing runaway slaves in the hands of federal officers. It provided that these cases would be heard by a federal judge or court commissioner and allowed the slave owner to prove the debt owed by the slave but precluded testimony from the fugitive entirely. The new law also increased the penalties for resistance and for concealment of fugitives.

Although it was intended as a compromise, the new law actually fueled the flames of anti-slavery sentiment and from 1854 to 1861, Wisconsin politics was dominated by the question of whether the state had to defer to the federal government’s efforts to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act.

In the spring of 1852, a slave named Joshua Glover escaped from a Missouri plantation and made his way to Racine, where he found work at a sawmill. Two years later, his owner tracked him down and had him apprehended by federal marshals under the Fugitive Slave Act. Glover was held in the Milwaukee County Jail pending a hearing.  When Sherman M. Booth, editor of the Milwaukee abolitionist newspaper, The Free Democrat, heard of the capture, he is said to have mounted his horse and galloped through the streets of Milwaukee shouting: “Freemen! To the rescue! Slave catchers are in our midst! Be at the courthouse at 2:00!” Booth’s lawyers then persuaded a Milwaukee County Court judge to issue a writ of habeas corpus (a judicial order freeing Booth) directing the U.S. marshal to bring Glover before the county judge and justify his detention

Before the hearing could take place, Booth appointed a committee to prevent the “kidnapping” of Glover by the federal authorities. After Booth made a fiery speech, a mob led by one of the other committeemen, John Ryecraft, battered down the jail doors, freed Glover and spirited him away to Canada.  Federal authorities charged Booth with assisting Glover’s escape. Booth was released on bail but two months later, at his own request, he was delivered to the U.S. Marshal. Booth’s surrender was calculated to bring a test case in the state courts challenging the constitutionality of the fugitive slave law. On the day after the surrender, Booth’s attorney, Byron Paine (later a justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court), successfully applied to Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Abram D. Smith for a writ of habeas corpus. At that hearing, Smith asked the parties to address the constitutionality of the fugitive slave law. Paine, citing Thomas Jefferson’s writings, said states have the right to impose their authority when their sovereign rights are violated by the federal government. Paine argued that Congress had no authority to make laws based on the fugitive slave clause of the Constitution and that the Act of 1850 was unconstitutional because it denied a trial by jury and vested judicial powers in court commissioners. On June 7, 1854, Smith ordered that Booth be released, finding the warrant of commitment defective and the fugitive slave law unconstitutional.

When the US Attorney General learned of the decision, he appealed it to the US Supreme Court. The case –  Ableman v. Booth – was heard in 1859, just one year before slavery would a major issue of the presidential election.  In that case, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Law and further held that Wisconsin did not have the power to nullify the Fugitive Slave Act.  In a decision written by Justice Roger Taney (who also wrote the infamous Dred Scott decision): “No power is more clearly conferred by the Constitution and laws of the United States than the power of this court to decide, ultimately and finally, all cases arising under such Constitution and laws.” [pg. 62]

The justices of the Wisconsin Supreme Court justices were then instructed to file the U.S. Supreme Court’s mandates reversing the judgments and dismissals in the Booth case. Although there had been some changes to the bench in the years since the case was heard, the majority opinion was that the federal court had no power to review the judgments of the state Supreme Court and Wisconsin was well within its right to nullify the Fugitive Slave Law, and so the justices voted not to file the mandates in the Booth cases. The Wisconsin Supreme Court would write: “The Supreme Court said that the States cannot, therefore, be compelled to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act. We regard the action of the Supreme Court of the US, in assuming jurisdiction in the case before mentioned, as an arbitrary act of power, unauthorized by the Constitution. This assumption of jurisdiction by the federal judiciary is an act of undelegated power, and therefore without authority, void, and of no force.”

[Booth was subsequently arrested by federal agents and placed in a state penitentiary. Since Wisconsin did not assert its duty to interpose and prevent federal agents from such conduct, Booth remained in custody. But only a few short months later, on the eve of Lincoln’s inauguration, President Buchanan would pardon him].

Wisconsin successfully nullified the Fugitive Slave Law in its state.  It did not back down. It did not reverse the judgment on Booth, as the US Supreme Court instructed. Although the Civil War would start in less than two years and the affections that bound North and South together would be strained, the state of Wisconsin maintained its position on the constitutionality of the Fugitive Slave Law and held to its conviction that it was unenforceable in its borders.

Contrary to the critics’ position that Nullification was used to promote and support slavery, the only real time we saw it used with regard to slavery is in an effort to discourage enforcement of laws to return slaves that have successfully escaped and to therefore encourage their escape to the north.

The critics of Nullification go even further and try to discredit Nullification by blaming it, for example, for Arkansas’ refusal to integrate their schools following the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1953 which demanded that school segregation be ended immediately.  Martin Luther King Jr. himself vilified Nullification in his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington DC in 1963.  He said: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by their character.  I have a dream today. I have a dream that one day down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; that one day right down in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”

To condemn Nullification for one bad application would require that we also condemn the Supreme Court because of its Dred Scott decision.  Besides, there are many constitutional scholars who don’t wonder if the Brown decision was decided using an interpretation that itself was unconstitutional. While it should be universally agreed that purposeful segregation of the races based on the assumption that blacks are an inferior race had to end. It was a shameful policy that has rocked our moral conscience as a nation. But, to use the very same criteria (race), especially as in the bussing cases, to remedy for the past sins of segregation has been challenged as an unconstitutional exercise of judicial power. A violation of the 14th Amendment is a violation of the 14th Amendment, whether it’s used for bad or for good.

C.  Misrepresentation because of Political Correctness  

There is nothing more harmful to liberty and nothing more harmful in a free society than to shut down ideas and avenues of redress under the pretext that it “is offensive” to certain groups of people. Certainly, one of the oldest tricks in the book is the one whereby supporters of a centralized energetic government demonize the message that empowers its people. And that’s what has happened with Nullification and the Civil Rights Movement.

Martin Luther King Jr. used the words Nullification and Interposition for effect and to elicit passions that evoke memories of slavery and efforts by the South to deny them Civil Rights. Had he been honest, he would have also praised Nullification for providing the North with the reason not to enforce the Fugitive Slave Laws and condemning runaway slaves to a life of continued forced servitude as nothing more than personal property.

It was Arkansas’ actions in response to the Brown v. Board of Education decision that led to the Cooper v. Aaron case and appeared to give Nullification opponents ammunition. In the wake of the Brown case, the school district of Little Rock, Arkansas formulated a plan to desegregate its schools but most other school districts in the state opposed the Supreme Court’s rulings and attempted to find ways to perpetuate segregation. As a result, the Arkansas state legislature amended the state constitution to oppose desegregation and then passed a law relieving children from mandatory attendance at integrated schools. The school board of Little Rock, however, ignored then mandate and continued on with the desegregation program. In fact, it was this decision that led to the incident known as the “Little Rock Nine” incident (or the “Little Rock School Crisis of 1957″).  In 1957, the NAACP enrolled nine black children at Little Rock Central High. Arkansas’ Governor Orval Faubus energetically opposed the desegregation plan and even deployed the Arkansas National Guard to block the entrance to the school. On September 9, the Little Rock School District issued a statement condemning the governor’s deployment of soldiers to the school, and on September 24, President Eisenhower ordered the 101st Airborne Division of the US Army to Little Rock and federalized the entire 10,000-member Arkansas National Guard, taking it out of the hands of Faubus. The crisis was over and the nine students were finally permitted to attend Little Rock Central.

On February 20, 1958, five months after the integration crisis, members of the Arkansas state school board (along with the Superintendent of Schools) filed suit in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas, urging suspension of Little Rock’s plan of desegregation. They alleged that public hostility to desegregation and that the opposition of Governor Faubus and the state legislature created an intolerable and chaotic situation. The relief the plaintiffs requested was for the black children to be returned to segregated schools and for the implementation of the desegregation plan to be postponed for two and a half years. The case would make its way to the Supreme Court later that same year.

In that case, Cooper v. Aaron, the Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision in Cooper  v. Aaron, noted that although the school board had apparently acted in good faith, it was nonetheless constitutionally impermissible under the Equal Protection Clause to maintain law and order by depriving the black students their equal rights under the law.  It began its analysis by noting that Justice John Marshall, in 1803 in the landmark case of  Marbury v. Madison, declared that “It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.” The Marbury decision established the basic principle that the federal judiciary is supreme in the exposition of the law of the Constitution.  The Cooper opinion then went on to state: “The interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment enunciated by this Court in the Brown case is the supreme law of the land under Article VI of the Constitution (the Supremacy Clause) which therefore makes it of binding effect on the States.”  Furthermore, the Court reasoned, since every state official takes an oath to support the US Constitution, they are bound to solemnly support the Constitution and such rulings. The Court then rejected the notion that a state has no duty to obey a federal court order that it believes to be unconstitutional.  In other words, the Court rejected nullification and interposition. “In short, the constitutional rights of children not to be discriminated against in school admission on grounds of race or color declared by this Court in the Brown case can neither be nullified openly and directly by state legislators or state executive or judicial officers nor nullified indirectly by them through evasive schemes for segregation whether attempted ingeniously or ingenuously.”

It is worth noting that the Framers and Founding Fathers never assigned the Supreme Court the responsibility that Justice Marshall assumed for the Court in Marbury v. Madison – that it shall be the sole province of the Supreme Court to declare what the Constitution says and means. It is a power that the Court, a branch of the federal government, assigned and delegated to itself. And that decision has never been challenged, even though the Federalist Papers speak differently of the function of the federal judiciary.

Furthermore, the Supreme Court has no more the right to declare Nullification an improper check and balance on the power of the federal government as it does on the Separation of Powers doctrine or the President’s Veto power.

Some legal scholars have publicly criticized the Court’s rationale in Cooper. Perhaps the most famous criticism comes from former US Attorney General (under Ronald Reagan) and brilliant constitutional attorney, Edwin Meese III, in his law review article entitled The Law of the Constitution. In that article, Meese accused the Supreme Court of taking too much power for itself by setting itself up as the sole institution responsible for the interpretation of the Constitution. He wrote that while judicial interpretation of the Constitution binds the parties of the case, it should not establish a supreme law of the land that must be accepted by all persons.

             D.  Misrepresentation by an Incorrect Assessment of the Civil War  

Perhaps one of the most popular arguments given by the opponents of Nullification is that the Civil War settled the issue.

Of course, this is a preposterous assertion. Core constitutional principles weren’t destroyed, even though President Lincoln did everything in his power to destroy the Constitution itself. Just because a constitutional government was suspended and the proper role of the federal government was temporarily derailed does not mean our system was abandoned. The US Constitution was never rejected and supplanted by another. Our supreme law was merely modified by a few amendments and the southern states were punished (severely) for their audacity in seceding.

Opponents allege that it was the Southern States and their seditious spirit (ie, embracing Nullification) that led to the Civil War. It seems that it never occurred to them to read the Inaugural Address of Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America, where he talked about their pure allegiance to the spirit of the American Revolution and the principles embodied in the Declaration of Independence.

As Thomas Jefferson so aptly explained, the power of Nullification is that it accomplishes peacefully what rebellion would accomplish forcibly..  and that is a rejection of a government that refuses to abide by its constitutional bounds.  Nullification is a gentle nudge, by the States, to put the federal government on notice that it has violated the terms and spirit of the Constitution, and therefore putting the ball back in its court so it can take the proper steps and remedy the situation. That’s why Jefferson, in fact, one of the reasons he termed it the “Rigthful Remedy.”  Nullification doesn’t lead to Secession, it prevents it.  Only when the federal government refuses to abide by the boundaries the people have entrusted it do the People have to consider more extreme measures.

In his book Is Davis a Traitor, Albert Taylor Bledsoe writes: “The subjugation of the Southern States and their acceptance of the terms dictated (forced upon them) by the North in the War of Coercion may be considered as having shifted the Federal Government from the basis of compact to that of conquest, and thereby extinguished every claim to the right of secession for the future.”

Whether one believes we have been conquered by our own government determines what they believe about Nullification and Secession. Whether one believes Bledsoe’s assessment or not speaks volumes about whether that person cherishes liberty.

Our Declaration of Independence proclaims that in America, individual liberty is grounded firmly in Natural Law and God’s law. To secure that foundation, our country adopted the government philosophy of John Locke which says that people have rights preexisting government, government exists to protect those rights, and government should not stand in the way of its own dissolution should it violate those rights. This is the express message of the Declaration.

It’s obvious that in the wake of the Civil War, the nature of government has fundamentally changed and that the relationship between itself and the people has been transformed. But while there are those who accept the notion that with the War of Coercion the government took a stand against the rights of the individual (and won) and who believe we must submit to this new system, the question really boils down to this….  Did the government have the right to coerce the States and the People to fight a war for ITS own preservation and domination?  Did it have the right to subjugate the Southern States against their will?  NO, it did not. Nowhere did the government have the right to act as it did and therefore the consequences are NULL and VOID.

Those who support Nullification still believe in the fundamental truth that people have rights that preexist government and that government exists primarily to protect our rights from those that do not respect them and NOT to control us and coerce us into serving its goals.

As Jefferson Davis indeed predicted, the northern victors would succeed in teaching history which vindicates their efforts and violations. And so, through our public schools, the great majority of books, government opinion, and even the significance of the Lincoln Memorial on the national mall, we are led to believe that Abraham Lincoln was our most important and beloved president. The reality, according to historian Larry Tagg in his book  The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln: America’s Most Reviled President, is that he was the most hated of all American presidents during his lifetime. He was so thoroughly hated in the North (especially in New York) that the New York Times editorialized a wish that he would be assassinated. Thomas DiLorenzo, who has done extensive research on Lincoln, said the hatred was perfectly understandable.  Lincoln committed so many constitutional violations that even Congress’ collective head was spinning. The Congressional record is full of discussion as to the extent of his violations. He illegally suspended Habeas Corpus, imprisoned tens of thousands of Northern political critics without due process, and shut down over 300 opposition newspapers. If they still tried to use the mail to distribute news, he called out the army, seized their property, and prevented their access to the US mail. He enforced military conscription with the murder of hundreds of New York City draft protesters in 1863 and with the mass execution of deserters from his army. He deported a congressional critic (Democratic Congressman Clement Vallandigham of Ohio); confiscated firearms; and issued an arrest warrant for the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (Roger Taney) when he issued an opinion that only Congress could legally suspend Habeas Corpus. He blocked southern ports without authorization of Congress (which is far and above the type of action necessary to quash a rebellion; it’s an act of war). Most of all, he waged an unnecessary war, not authorized by Congress, that resulted in the death of 1 in every 4 young men (3.4% of the population at the time; 3.4% of today’s population would be approximately 8.5 million Americans). The real legacy of the Civil War, is Lincoln’s “false virtue” – that he felt justified in trampling all over the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution, and the sovereign rights of the states in order to do what he personally believed was necessary.  To say Lincoln saved the Union by waging the Civil War is like saying a man saved his marriage by beating his wife into submission.

For those who believe that the Civil War settled the question of whether Nullification is a proper remedy, then I ask this: How is it that a constitutional remedy can be destroyed by unconstitutional conduct by the President of the United States and the US Congress?  How the essential principles of self-preservation and self-government proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence be destroyed by the very institution that that document assured would be established to protect those rights?  How can a liberty-minded people buy into this fatal argument that it is OK for the US government, a creature of the People themselves, to take a hostile position with respect to the Declaration of Independence and deny them the promise “that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”  How is it that a nation so singular in its purpose when it fought the Revolutionary War (to secede from an oppressive government, in order to live free and govern themselves accordingly) has deteriorated to the point that its people can no longer make the essential connection between their Constitution and the principles proclaimed in the Declaration which underlie it?  It was all about liberty and freedom – the condition of independence (liberty) and the right to go about our business without being controlled or subjugated (freedom). In explaining why it was so important for our founding colonists to stand up against the growing tyranny of the British King and Parliament, Mercy Otis Warren perhaps articulated it best when he said, in 1774, “in order to preserve inviolate, and to convey to their children the inherent rights of men, conferred on all by the God of nature, and the privileges of Englishmen claimed by Americans from the sacred sanction of compacts.” And so the Declaration proclaimed the supremacy of Man (“to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle him”) and outlined the purpose of government (to secure and protect his rights). By the very words of the Declaration, man has inalienable rights that no government can take away and he has the right to defend them and preserve them. That’s why the document provides that man can “alter or abolish” his government when it becomes destructive of his rights and the free exercise thereof. In other words, the rights of man would always trump the power of government; and while man has the right of self-preservation, the government has no such right.

The Constitution merely designed a government according to the moral dictates of the Declaration. That’s why it was limited in scope and permeated with so many checks and balances in order that it remain so. Thomas Paine wrote: “A constitution is not the act of a government, but of a people constituting a government; and government without a constitution is power without a right. All power exercised over a nation, must have some beginning. It must be either delegated, or assumed. There are not other sources. All delegated power is trust, and all assumed power is usurpation. Time does not alter the nature and quality of either.” Rights of Man (1791-1792)

The Supreme Court, in one of its earliest cases – Vanhorne’s Lessee v. Dorance (1795), which addressed a property matter as between the states of Pennsylvania and Connecticut – Judge Paterson explained: “What is a Constitution?  It is the form of government, delineated by the mighty hand of the people, in which certain first principles of fundamental laws are established.  The Constitution is certain and fixed; it contains the permanent will of the people and is the supreme law of the land…”  [Indeed, the unprecedented task confronting the Court in its infancy was that of interpreting our new written constitution so as not to disturb the settled, existing framework of the document as written, intended, and understood by the States when they signed it. That task was short-lived].

We are NOT free when we wait for the government or for the Supreme Court to tell us what our rights are or tell us that avenues that were once open to us to restrain the power and influence of government over our once-free lives are no longer available (because they threaten the power of government).

Again, the government was instituted to protect that rights of self-government and self-determination for us; not to destroy them. And if we believe that we have the right to define our government and reclaim the rights that We the People are endowed with that a government is trying to take away or has taken away, then we have to believe in Nullification. It is the rightful constitutional remedy that restores the proper balance of sovereign power – peacefully.

Unfortunately, all too often the government is more concerned in controlling the governed rather than controlling itself, and so the responsibility falls to us to control it.

E.  The Misrepresentation that the Courts Have the Final Word

In 1958, in the case Cooper v. Aaron, the Supreme Court rejected the doctrines of Nullification and Interposition, asserting that states have no right to refuse to enforce federal law (even when that law is one created from the bench rather than the legislature). A person who is brainwashed into believing that the federal judiciary was established to be the one final tribunal to declare what the Constitution means and which laws are constitutional and therefore bind all states and persons to those decisions has not done his or her homework. That person is a sheep.. the kind of citizen that an all-powerful government treasures and hopes to multiply.

Our Founders had something quite different in mind. Sure, Founders like Alexander Hamilton believed it best that one tribunal speak on constitutionality – for consistency. But that voice was only to render an opinion and not to have the power of supremacy.

With respect to the Founders’ intentions for the federal judiciary (as an independent branch), I tend to follow the view that Hamilton set forth in Federalist No. 78:

Whoever attentively considers the different departments of power must perceive that, in a government in which they are separated from each other, the judiciary, from the nature of its functions, will always be least in a capacity to annoy or injure them. The Executive not only dispenses the honors, but holds the sword of the community. The legislature not only commands the purse but prescribes the rules by which the duties and rights of every citizen are to be regulated. The judiciary, on the contrary, has no influence over either the sword or the purse; no direction either of the strength or of the wealth of the society; and can take no active resolution whatsoever. It may truly be said to have neither FORCE nor WILL, but merely judgment; and must ultimately depend upon the aid of the executive arm even for the efficacy of its judgments.

      This simple view of the matter suggests several important consequences. It proves incontestably, that the judiciary is beyond comparison the weakest of the three departments of power; that it can never attack with success either of the other two; and that all possible care is requisite to enable it to defend itself against their attacks. It equally proves, that though individual oppression may now and then proceed from the courts of justice, the general liberty of the people can never be endangered from that quarter….. Liberty can have nothing to fear from the judiciary alone, but would have everything to fear from its union with either of the other departments; that as all the effects of such a union must ensue from a dependence of the former on the latter, notwithstanding a nominal and apparent separation; that as, from the natural feebleness of the judiciary, it is in continual jeopardy of being overpowered, awed, or influenced by its co-ordinate branches; and that as nothing can contribute so much to its firmness and independence as permanency in office, this quality may therefore be justly regarded as an indispensable ingredient in its constitution, and, in a great measure, as the citadel of the public justice and the public security.

      Some perplexity respecting the rights of the courts to pronounce legislative acts void, because contrary to the Constitution, has arisen from an imagination that the doctrine would imply a superiority of the judiciary to the legislative power. It is urged that the authority which can declare the acts of another void, must necessarily be superior to the one whose acts may be declared void. As this doctrine is of great importance in all the American constitutions, a brief discussion of the ground on which it rests cannot be unacceptable.

       There is no position which depends on clearer principles, than that every act of a delegated authority, contrary to the tenor of the commission under which it is exercised, is void. No legislative act, therefore, contrary to the Constitution, can be valid. To deny this, would be to affirm, that the deputy is greater than his principal; that the servant is above his master; that the representatives of the people are superior to the people themselves; that men acting by virtue of powers, may do not only what their powers do not authorize, but what they forbid.

       If it be said that the legislative body are themselves the constitutional judges of their own powers, and that the construction they put upon them is conclusive upon the other departments, it may be answered, that this cannot be the natural presumption, where it is not to be collected from any particular provisions in the Constitution. It is not otherwise to be supposed, that the Constitution could intend to enable the representatives of the people to substitute their will to that of their constituents. It is far more rational to suppose, that the courts were designed to be an intermediate body between the people and the legislature, in order, among other things, to keep the latter within the limits assigned to their authority. The interpretation of the laws is the proper and peculiar province of the courts. A constitution is, in fact, and must be regarded by the judges, as a fundamental law. It therefore belongs to them to ascertain its meaning, as well as the meaning of any particular act proceeding from the legislative body. If there should happen to be an irreconcilable variance between the two, that which has the superior obligation and validity ought, of course, to be preferred; or, in other words, the Constitution ought to be preferred to the statute, the intention of the people to the intention of their agents.

Nor does this conclusion by any means suppose a superiority of the judicial to the legislative power. It only supposes that the power of the people is superior to both; and that where the will of the legislature, declared in its statutes, stands in opposition to that of the people, declared in the Constitution, the judges ought to be governed by the latter rather than the former. They ought to regulate their decisions by the fundamental laws, rather than by those which are not fundamental.

      This exercise of judicial discretion, in determining between two contradictory laws, is exemplified in a familiar instance. It not uncommonly happens, that there are two statutes existing at one time, clashing in whole or in part with each other, and neither of them containing any repealing clause or expression. In such a case, it is the province of the courts to liquidate and fix their meaning and operation. So far as they can, by any fair construction, be reconciled to each other, reason and law conspire to dictate that this should be done; where this is impracticable, it becomes a matter of necessity to give effect to one, in exclusion of the other. The rule which has obtained in the courts for determining their relative validity is, that the last in order of time shall be preferred to the first. But this is a mere rule of construction, not derived from any positive law, but from the nature and reason of the thing. It is a rule not enjoined upon the courts by legislative provision, but adopted by themselves, as consonant to truth and propriety, for the direction of their conduct as interpreters of the law. They thought it reasonable, that between the interfering acts of an EQUAL authority, that which was the last indication of its will should have the preference.

      But in regard to the interfering acts of a superior and subordinate authority, of an original and derivative power, the nature and reason of the thing indicate the converse of that rule as proper to be followed. They teach us that the prior act of a superior ought to be preferred to the subsequent act of an inferior and subordinate authority; and that accordingly, whenever a particular statute contravenes the Constitution, it will be the duty of the judicial tribunals to adhere to the latter and disregard the former.

It can be of no weight to say that the courts, on the pretense of a repugnancy, may substitute their own pleasure to the constitutional intentions of the legislature. This might as well happen in the case of two contradictory statutes; or it might as well happen in every adjudication upon any single statute. The courts must declare the sense of the law; and if they should be disposed to exercise WILL instead of JUDGMENT, the consequence would equally be the substitution of their pleasure to that of the legislative body. The observation, if it prove anything, would prove that there ought to be no judges distinct from that body.

      If, then, the courts of justice are to be considered as the bulwarks of a limited Constitution against legislative encroachments, this consideration will afford a strong argument for the permanent tenure of judicial offices, since nothing will contribute so much as this to that independent spirit in the judges which must be essential to the faithful performance of so arduous a duty… ”     [Then Hamilton goes on to explain that judges of the federal judiciary will be insulted from the passions of temporary political whims or majorities who want the legislature to act in violation of the Constitution by account of their life tenure.  That is what, in his opinion, would keep the federal judiciary as the faithful check on the other branches by reviewing their actions for constitutionality and rendering constitutional ‘opinions’].

The intended role of the judiciary, both generally and specifically, was to serve as the “bulwarks of a limited constitution against legislative encroachments.” (Federalist No. 78). The Founders believed that the judges would “regulate their decisions” by the word and spirit of the Constitution for the preservation of that limited government which was so necessary for maximum liberty. As the “faithful guardians of the Constitution,” the judges were expected to resist any political effort to depart from its literal provisions. The text of the Constitution and the original intention of those who framed and ratified it would be the judicial standard in giving it effect and preserving its integrity.

The Court was intended to strictly interpret and offer an opinion as to the meaning of the Constitution, as well as the legality of the actions of the Executive and Legislative branches. It was intended to protect the People from unjust laws and oppressive conduct by their government. As James Madison explained, the Constitution was written the way it was in order “to first enable the government to control the governed and in the next place, to oblige it to control itself.” An independent, constitutionally-bound judiciary was the oversight which was created to remind the other branches to control itself.

From what I understand from the Federalist Papers and the intent of the Founders, the power to interpret the Constitution should reside with the federal judiciary in order that there be one tribunal that speaks with one voice, rather than opinions all over the place by each of the states. But the Supreme Court was not intended to do anymore than offer “an opinion” as to the meaning of a particular provision of the Constitution or as to the constitutionality of a particular piece of legislation. The Court was supposed to interpret strictly in accordance to the plain meaning and the spirit of the ratifying conventions. Once the Court rendered an “opinion,” it was the understanding that the other branches would respond accordingly, ie, Congress would repeal a bill that was passed without proper and express authority, or if it refused to do so, the President would veto it (under the checks and balances). States would refuse to enact legislation that violated the Supremacy Clause. In other words, how the other branches responded to the ‘opinion” was their concern, but as to the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches (together with the state’s direct voice in the Senate), and then the voice of the States under the 10th Amendment and the people’s power at the ballot box, in the end the only actions of the government that would be enforced at the state level (ie, on the People) would be those that adhere to the language and spirit of the Constitution.

Founders like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison quickly saw the threat the federal judiciary posed to a constitutionally-limited government. It’s one of reasons why Jefferson, when discussing the possible remedies available when the federal government oversteps its constitutional boundaries, expressly rejected the federal courts. He strongly advised the States and the People NOT to trust the judiciary with their precious liberties. Again, he expressed the opinion that the States were the best and most reliable guardians of that precious jewel and that’s why Nullification was the “Rightful Remedy.”

Here are some of the warnings and comments he made about the federal judiciary (again, being mindful that he was witnessing firsthand how the Supreme Court was actively re-defining the Constitution and undermining its guarantees of individual liberty):

To consider the Judges of the Superior Court as the ultimate arbiters of constitutional questions would be a dangerous doctrine which would place us under the despotism of an oligarchy. They have with others, the same passion for party, for power, and for the privileges of their corps – and their power is the most dangerous as they are in office for life, and not responsible, as the other functionaries are, to the Elective control. The Constitution has elected no single tribunal.  I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of society but the people themselves.”   [in a letter to William C. Jarvis, 1820]

The germ of dissolution of our federal government is in the constitution of the federal judiciary: an irresponsible body, working like gravity by night and by day, gaining a little today and a little tomorrow, and advancing its noiseless step like a thief, over the field of jurisdiction until all shall be usurped from the States, and the government of all be consolidated into one. To this I am opposed; because, when all government, domestic and foreign, in little as in great things, shall be drawn to Washington as the centre of all it will render powerless the checks provided of one government on another and will become as venal and oppressive as the government from which we separated.”    [in a letter to Charles Hammond, August 18, 1821]

The judiciary of the United States is a subtle core of sappers and miners constantly working underground to undermine the foundations of our confederated fabric. They are construing our constitution from a coordination of a general and special government to a general and supreme one alone. The opinions are often delivered by a majority of one, by a crafty Chief Judge who sophisticates the law to his mind by the turn of his own reasoning.”   [in a letter to Thomas Ritchie, December 1820]

The question whether the judges are invested with exclusive authority to decide on the constitutionality of a law has been heretofore a subject of consideration with me in the exercise of official duties. Certainly there is not a word in the Constitution which has given that power to them more than to the Executive or Legislative branches.”    [in a letter to W. H. Torrance, 1815]

The Constitution meant that its coordinate branches should be checks on each other. But the opinion which gives to the judges the right to decide what laws are constitutional and what not, not only for themselves in their own sphere of action but for the Legislature and Executive also in their spheres, would make the Judiciary a despotic branch.”    [in a letter to Abigail Adams, 1804]

The true barriers of our liberty are our State governments; and the wisest conservative power ever contrived by man, is that of which our Revolution and present government found us possessed.”   [in a letter to L. C. Destutt de Tracy, 1811]

The powers of the Supreme Court were fundamentally transformed – enlarged – by the Court itself in 1803 in the case Marbury v. Madison. In the opinion he wrote in that landmark case, Chief Justice Marshall declared that the Court had much more power than merely offering an opinion to the other branches. Not only would the Court have power to render opinions to the other branches and to “put the States and the People on notice,” it would also have enforcement power. It would be the final word on matters of the Constitution to which all sovereigns would be bound… (Unfortunately, the Court is part of the federal government and not necessarily a fair umpire for the parties to the social compact that is the US Constitution. The decision, to me, seems to contradict that which Hamilton sought to assure the States in Federalist No. 78 – that the judiciary would not be superior to the other branches such that its decisions would not be subject to checks from the other branches (or the States). And it seems to contradict what the states found so troubling with a proposed federal government that had stronger powers than the Continental Congress under the Articles – that the federal government would have the tendency to become centralized, at the expense of the States, and would have the exclusive domain to define what its powers are.

If we had remained with that pre-Marshall definition of the Court’s power, then the States would have clearly been able to check the opinion of the federal judiciary by either concurring with it and abiding happily by the decision (relying on their understanding of the Constitution through the Federalist Papers and their ratification debates) or disagreeing and thus ignoring it.

Marbury is not entirely a bad decision. Strict constitutionalists will agree that parts of Marshall’s analysis are spot on.

The facts of the case, in and of themselves, give support to the skepticism that Thomas Jefferson had of the federal judiciary and its capacity to align itself with evil-intentioned government officials rather than act as a neutral and constitutionally-restrained independent tribunal. The case arose as John Adams tried to stack the federal courts with Federalists in his final hours as President in a move to frustrate the incoming Thomas Jefferson (who, after the attempt to establish a Federal Bank and the seeming concurrence of many Federalists with Hamilton’s position of “implied government powers). Adams made the commissions and handed them to his Secretary of State to deliver them. All were delivered except for a few, one of which was the appointment for William Marbury. The appointments were made pursuant to the Judiciary Act of 1801, which Adams had Congress pass in a specific attempt to stack the courts.

After the Constitution was ratified, the first Congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1789 which established the federal court system. It established a Supreme Court (with a Chief Justice and 5 associate justices), three circuit courts, and 13 district courts (one district court for each of the 13 states). In November 1800, Adams lost his bid for re-election. Jefferson was elected President. Turns out the Congress changed hands as well. The Federalists, who had been in power, lost control of the House and Senate. But for those few months before Jefferson and the new Congress took office, the Federalists still had control. As I mentioned above, in order to frustrate his nemesis and his administration, Adams persuaded Congress to pass a new law – the Judiciary Act of 1801 – which would increase the number of judges sitting on the federal benches and therefore give him the opportunity to appoint several new federal (Federalist) judges. Section 13 of the Judicary Act provided: :The Supreme Court shall have power to issue writs of prohibition to the district courts and writs of mandamus to any courts appointed, or persons holding office, under the authority of the United States.”

Adams appointed about 39 new judges pursuant to the Judiciary Act. His Secretary of State delivered them successfully. However, he failed to deliver the commissions of 3 new justices before Adams’ term of office ended. Again, one of those commissions was to go to William Marbury. When Jefferson took office in March 1801 and learned of Adams’ attempt to pack the courts with Federalists, as well as the failure to successfully deliver the 3 commissions, he instructed his Secretary of State, James Madison, to refuse the appointments. Marbury then applied to the Supreme Court for the remedy offered him under Section 13 of the Judiciary Act.

The case asked 3 questions: (1) Does Marbury have a right to the appointment? (2) Does the law afford him a remedy? and (3) Is the law that affords that remedy constitutional? Chief Justice Marshall concluded that Marbury had a right to the appointment and that the Judiciary Act offered him a remedy to assert that right. But the case boiled down to the question of whether Section 13 conflicted with the Constitution, and he concluded that it did. It improperly enlarged the original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. Article III established original jurisdiction and Congress does not have the power to alter the Constitution (only the amendment process can do that).

In reaching the decision that Section 13 is unenforceable, Justice Marshall articulated several principles that re-enforce the notion of limited government, social compact, original intent, and yes, nullification. He wrote:

The question whether an act repugnant to the Constitution can become the law of the land is a question deeply interesting to the United States, but, happily, not of an intricacy proportioned to its interest. It seems only necessary to recognize certain principles, supposed to have been long and well established, to decide it.

      That the people have an original right to establish for their future government such principles as, in their opinion, shall most conduce to their own happiness is the basis on which the whole American fabric has been erected. The exercise of this original right is a very great exertion; nor can it nor ought it to be frequently repeated. The principles, therefore, so established are deemed fundamental. And as the authority from which they proceed, is supreme, and can seldom act, they are designed to be permanent.

      This original and supreme will organizes the government and assigns to different departments their respective powers. It may either stop here or establish certain limits not to be transcended by those departments.

      The Government of the United States is of the latter description. The powers of the Legislature are defined and limited; and that those limits may not be mistaken or forgotten, the Constitution is written. To what purpose are powers limited, and to what purpose is that limitation committed to writing, if these limits may at any time be passed by those intended to be restrained? The distinction between a government with limited and unlimited powers is abolished if those limits do not confine the persons on whom they are imposed, and if acts prohibited and acts allowed are of equal obligation. It is a proposition too plain to be contested that the Constitution controls any legislative act repugnant to it, or that the Legislature may alter the Constitution by an ordinary act.

     Between these alternatives there is no middle ground. The Constitution is either a superior, paramount law, unchangeable by ordinary means, or it is on a level with ordinary legislative acts, and, like other acts, is alterable when the legislature shall please to alter it.

     If the former part of the alternative be true, then a legislative act contrary to the Constitution is not law; if the latter part be true, then written Constitutions are absurd attempts on the part of the people to limit a power in its own nature illimitable.

      Certainly all those who have framed written Constitutions contemplate them as forming the fundamental and paramount law of the nation, and consequently the theory of every such government must be that an act of the Legislature repugnant to the Constitution is void. This theory is essentially attached to a written Constitution and is consequently to be considered by this Court as one of the fundamental principles of our society. the particular phraseology of the Constitution of the United States confirms and strengthens the principle, supposed to be essential to all written Constitutions, that a law repugnant to the Constitution is void, and that courts, as well as other departments, are bound by that instrument.”

 From these and many other selections which might be made, it is apparent that the framers of the Constitution contemplated that instrument as a rule for the government of courts, as well as of the Legislature.  The particular phraseology of the Constitution of the United States confirms and strengthens the principle, supposed to be essential to all written constitutions, that a law repugnant to that Constitution is void and that courts, as well as other departments, are bound by that instrument.

      If the courts aren’t bound by the phraseology of the Constitution, why does it direct the judges to take an oath to support it? This oath certainly applies in an especial manner to their conduct in their official character. How immoral to impose it on them if they were to be used as the instruments, and the knowing instruments, for violating what they swear to support! The oath of office, too, imposed by the Legislature, is completely demonstrative of the legislative opinion on this subject. It is in these words: 

      ‘I do solemnly swear that I will administer justice without respect to persons, and do equal right to the poor and to the rich; and that I will faithfully and impartially discharge all the duties incumbent on me as according to the best of my abilities and understanding, agreeably to the Constitution and laws of the United States.’

      Why does a judge swear to discharge his duties agreeably to the Constitution of the United States if that Constitution forms no rule for his government? If such be the real state of things, this is worse than solemn mockery. To prescribe or to take this oath becomes equally a crime.

      It is also not entirely unworthy of observation that, in declaring what shall be the supreme law of the land, the Constitution itself is first mentioned, and not the laws of the United States generally, but those only which shall be made in pursuance of the Constitution, have that rank. [pp. 176-182]

The problem arose when Marshall announced that the Court would possess the power of deciding upon the “operation” of the law being scrutinized. The Court would made the final decision and all branches, all state courts, etc would be bound by its decision.

The problem with believing the indoctrination that when the Supreme Court speaks, the issue of supremacy is determined without question is that it compromises our notion of Liberty and our fundamental belief that our government is a creature of the People, constrained by the Rule of Law.

The central point behind nullification is that the federal government cannot be permitted to hold a monopoly on constitutional interpretation. If the federal government has the exclusive right to judge the extent of its own powers, it will, without a shadow of a doubt, continue to grow, regardless of elections, the separation of powers, and the various checks and balances. There should be no more powerful indictment of this statement than the Supreme Court’s approval of Obamacare and its ringing endorsement of an unlimited taxing power.

Part 4: Why Nullification? 

The TRUTH about Nullification is that it is legitimate and is the only way to effect a meaningful check on the federal government when the executive, legislative, and judicial branches unite on an incorrect interpretation of the Constitution and threaten the independence of the States and the reserved rights of the People. The federal government CANNOT be permitted to hold a monopoly on constitutional interpretation. If the federal government has the exclusive right to judge the extent of its own powers, as Madison and Jefferson warned in 1798-99, it will continue to grow – regardless of elections, the separation of powers, and other limits on government power. Nullification has always been available to push the government back within the boundaries of the Constitution but for too long, those hostile to the Constitution have insinuated – FALSELY – that the doctrine was the reason for the Civil War and for segregation, thereby trying to use shame to invalidate it.

We should take a cue from Patrick Henry. When others were celebrating the Constitution and rejoicing that a more effective compact was created, Henry urged them to cool their heads and take a step back and look carefully at the document they were asked to ratify.  It was his opinion that the government created by the Constitution would tend to concentrate power, strip power from the states, and become no better than England’s monarchy (“it squints toward monarchy”).  He urged Virginia to reject the Constitution. He reminded the delegates that trade, power, and security should not be the first concerns on their mind.  He said the proper inquiry should be “how your liberties can be better secured, for liberty ought to be the direct end of your government.”

On that first day of the Virginia Ratifying Convention, June 5, 1788, Patrick Henry addressed the delegates with these words:

Liberty, the greatest of all earthly blessing — give us that precious jewel, and you may take everything else!  Guard with jealous attention the public liberty. Suspect everyone who approaches that jewel. Unfortunately, nothing will preserve it but downright force. Whenever you give up that force, you are inevitably ruined.   

       When the American spirit was in its youth, the language of America was different..  Liberty, sir, was then the primary object. We are descended from a people whose government was founded on liberty: our glorious forefathers of Great Britain made liberty the foundation of everything. That country is become a great, mighty, and splendid nation; not because their government is strong and energetic, but, sir, because liberty is its direct end and foundation. We drew the spirit of liberty from our British ancestors: by that spirit we have triumphed over every difficulty. But now, sir, the American spirit, assisted by the ropes and chains of consolidation, is about to convert this country into a powerful and mighty empire. If you make the citizens of this country agree to become the subjects of one great consolidated empire of America, your government will not have sufficient energy to keep them together. Such a government is incompatible with the genius of republicanism. There will be no checks, no real balances, in this government. What can avail your specious, imaginary balances, your rope-dancing, chain-rattling, ridiculous ideal checks and contrivances? But, sir, we are not feared by foreigners; we do not make nations tremble. Would this constitute happiness, or secure liberty? I trust, sir, our political hemisphere will ever direct their operations to the security of those objects.”

The jury is still out on this thing we call the Great American Experiment. We separated from Great Britain when we insisted on governing ourselves consistent without our own values. Those values were articulated in the Declaration of Independence. Contrary to the “divine right of Kings” which was the system respected in Britain, the American colonies would establish a government “of the people, by the people, and FOR the people.” It would go one step further.. it would establish a government whose powers were derived from the people themselves (so that the people could always take them back when they were fed up with that government). While the British people had to stand up for their rights many times, Americans have never done so since the Revolutionary War. The British protested and demanded that the King respect their rights in 1100 (resulting in the 1100 Charter of Liberties), in 1215 (the Magna Carta or “Great Charter”), in 1628 (the Petition of Right of 1628), in 1641 (The Grand Remonstrances of 1641), in 1679 (the Habeas Corpus Act), and finally in 1689 (English Bill of Rights of 1689).  [The Grand Remonstrances and The English Bill of Rights, like our Declaration of Independence, set out lists of grievances against the King for usurpations of the rights that were proclaimed in the earlier charters]. The interesting thing about history of the British people in asserting their rights and demanding restraint from their government is that each time they did so, they were able to secure greater freedom. We can take a lesson from British history. There is another great distinction between the British and our system. When the Kings signed those charters, they often did so very reluctantly. For example, almost immediately after  King John (the infamous King John of the Robin Hood legend) signed the Magna Carta, he ignored it. It was ignored on and off until the 17th century. The point is that the rights of the people were enjoyed at the mercy of the King. There was no meaningful way to enforce the charters. Parliament tried to, but as with King Charles I (son of King James I, who granted the charters to the Pilgrims and Puritans to settle in America), when Parliament tried to force his hand, he turned around and dissolved it. Our Founding Fathers intended that our Constitution and Bill of Rights would be stand the test of time, guarantee the proper relationship between the People and government, and not jeopardize the rights and liberties of the people. That’s why they divided power among two equal sovereigns (power to check power) and why they included so many checks and balances. To deny Nullification is a dangerous decision. To deny it is to: (i) deny the wisdom of our Founders; (ii) trust your rights to a government which is growing more hostile to them by the day; and (iii) submit to the notion that government is capable of restraining itself and capable of divesting itself of all the unconstitutional powers it has already assumed and repealing such laws it has passed.

Liberty must always come first. Liberty is a gift, as KrisAnne Hall says, that we must pay forward. We don’t pay it forward by not second-guessing the actions of the federal government, especially when we know it likes to enlarge its powers at every chance.  We don’t pay it forward by accepting the government’s version that constitutional remedies that were put in place by our Founders to preserve the rights on which this country are founded are no longer valid. We pay it forward by preserving it. We do that by using every option we have to limit the intrusion of government in our lives and over our property. Our Constitution is not the living, breathing document that the progressives and federal judges claim it to be, for if that is the case, it can be twisted so completely as to destroy our understanding of it.  The only thing that is living and breathing is us, the citizens of the United States who have inherited a precious gift of freedom to live our lives and raise our families. And so let’s use the common sense and spark of brilliance that God so endowed us with when he also endowed us with free will and inherent rights.

References:

Cooper v. Aaron, 358 U.S. 1 (1958).  http://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/358/1/case.html

Marbury v. Madison, 1 Cranch 137, 5 U. S. 177 (1803)

Ableman v. Booth, 62 U.S. 506 (1858). http://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/62/506/case.html

In re Booth, 3 Wis. 1 (1854). http://www.wicourts.gov/courts/supreme/docs/famouscases01.pdf

Vanhorne’s Lessee v. Dorance, 2 U.S. 304, 308 (1795).  http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch16s24.html

Robert Lowry Clinton, “The Supreme Court Before John Marshall,” Supreme Court Historical Society.  Referenced at: http://www.supremecourthistory.org/publications/the-supreme-court-before-john-marshall/

Walter Coffey, “Nullifying the Fugitive Slave Law,” February 3, 2013.  Referenced at: http://waltercoffey.wordpress.com/2013/02/03/nullifying-the-fugitive-slave-act/

Federalist Papers No. 33 – http://www.constitution.org/fed/federa33.htm

The Kentucky Resolves of 1799 (Thomas Jefferson) –  http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/kenres.asp

The Virginia Resolves of 1798 (James Madison) –  http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/virres.asp

Edwin Meese III, “The Law of the Constitution,” October 21, 1986  (speech transcript) – http://www.justice.gov/ag/aghistory/meese/meese-speeches.html

Patrick Henry, speech before the Virginia Ratifying Convention, June 5, 1788 – http://www.constitution.org/rc/rat_va_04.htm#henry-01

Thomas DiLorenzo, “More on the Myth of Lincoln, Secession and the ‘Civil War,”  The Daily Bell, June 2, 2013.  Referenced at:  http://www.thedailybell.com/29156/Thomas-DiLorenzo-More-on-the-Myth-of-Lincoln-Secession-and-the-Civil-War

Full text of “American patriotism: speeches, letters, and other papers which illustrate the foundation, the development, the preservation of the United States of America”  – http://www.archive.org/stream/patriotismam00peabrich/patriotismam00peabrich_djvu.txt