Believe it or not, the American federal government was once on the verge of growing too big and powerful. The year was 1798. America was on the verge of war with France. If you are of a curious mindset, like me, you might think, “Hmmm, that’s interesting, I thought we had just finished allying ourselves with France to win the Revolution?”
In 1778 France signed on to help America win her independence, but by 1798, France was seizing American ships trading with Great Britain and inflicting major losses on American shipping.
History never happens in a vacuum and to those who thought our early founders never embroiled themselves in foreign affairs, I’d refer them to this period often called the Quasi-War or the Franco-American War.
The United States was trying to stay neutral in the conflict between Great Britain and France and France wasn’t too happy to see her former ally doing business with her enemy. France also wasn’t too happy that the U.S. felt no obligation to pay their war debt to the new French Republic. America argued that that debt was meant for the French Crown, who unfortunately for France, was beheaded.
In the words of Rham Emanuel, never let a good crisis go to waste.
So the American federal government didn’t. They used the crisis with France to pass the Alien and Sedition Acts, which made it a crime to be a Frenchmen in America but also to “defame” – 18th century speak for criticize — the sitting administration. A convenient piece of legislation which allowed the Adams administration to do what it wanted with regard to the Quasi War with France.
Enter Thomas Jefferson and the new state of Kentucky.
Americans should know that Thomas Jefferson wrote the “The Declaration of Independence.” Yet most have probably never heard of The Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, which were adopted by the Kentucky General Assembly 213 years ago today – November 10th, 1798.
Jefferson drafted these resolutions in response to the Alien and Sedition Acts. He did it in secret and had it passed in Kentucky.
The Kentucky Resolutions invoked the 10th Amendment, which gave the federal government strict, limited powers – and nothing more. Jefferson argued that by passing and enforcing the Alien and Sedition Acts, the federal government had overstepped its constitutional bounds.
Jefferson writes in 1798, “whensoever the General Government assumes undelegated powers, its acts are unauthoritative, void, and of no force.”
Jefferson articulates that if the federal government were allowed to determine what its own powers were, there would exist no check or balance to our republican form of government.
So you might be wondering what ever happened to the Alien and Sedition Act, which declared that “any false, scandalous and malicious writing,” was punishable by fine and imprisonment.
During the life of this act, twenty-five men were arrested. One of the men was Benjamin Franklin’s own grandson, Benjamin Franklin Bache, editor of the Philadelphia Democrat-Republican Aurora. Charged with libeling President Adams, Bache’s arrest erupted in a public outcry.
Americans all over the nation questioned the constitutionality of these laws and public opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts was so great they ushered in the election of Thomas Jefferson in 1800. By 1832, the House Judiciary Committee finally announced the Sedition Act as unconstitutional.
As we face our own decade of massive federal power, and a modern administration operating outside it’s constitutional bounds, it takes the courage of a new generation who will stand up and say, “Enough!”
Today, the Bluegrass Institute celebrates the spirit of those who spoke out against big government and salutes Thomas Jefferson’s Kentucky Resolutions of 1798. November 10th is a day when all liberty loving Kentuckians should be proud.