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THE KENTUCKY RESOLUTIONS
HE Kentucky legislature on the day of its assembling, the seventh of November, for the session of 1798, was the scene of one of those dramatic incidents which profoundly affect the history of nations. Nothing was more improbable than that any action of this frontier commonwealth should prove to be of significance in the history of the United States. Yet, when John Breckinridge arose in his place to give notice that he would on the next day introduce certain resolutions, he set in motion one of the greatest political movements in American history. The governor, General James Garrard, according to the custom of the day, had just opened the session in person and delivered an address which contained a declaration of firm attachment to the Federal Constitution and a recommendation that the legislature should support the General Government. He, however, had qualified this recommendation by proceeding to suggest that the legislature should protest against "all unconstitutional laws and impolitic proceedings"; and he reminded his hearers that Kentucky, by its situation, was fortunate in being "remote from the contaminating influence of European politics, steady to the prin
ciples of pure republicanism, and an asylum of her persecuted votaries."
Mr. Breckinridge, the Representative from Fayette county, was appointed chairman of the committee of three to consider the address and make a report to the House. He gave notice that on the next day he proposed to move that the House should go into committee of the whole on the state of the commonwealth, to take into consideration that portion of the governor's address which referred to certain unconstitutional laws passed at the late session of Congress, and that he would then move certain resolutions on the subject. These resolutions, introduced the next day, were the famous Kentucky Resolutions of 1798.1
The little scene had been carefully set, and the actors knew well their parts. The governor's address had been planned in consultation with the mover of the resolutions, and the resolutions themselves had been carefully devised by the leaders of the movement which was, through these resolutions, to find definite organization as the Democratic-Republican party.2
The choice of Kentucky as the place where the scene should be enacted is somewhat remarkable. It would have been entirely inexplicable upon the earlier theory of the origin of the resolutions, which attributed the idea primarily to Mr. Jefferson himself, and sought without success the actual mover of the resolutions in George Nicholas, one of Jefferson's most devoted followers, who had found a too early grave a few months before. Many efforts have been made to explain why resolutions of this character were introduced first in the Kentucky legislature. The true solution is certainly to be found in the personality of John Breckinridge, the mover, his active interest in the matter itself, and the probability that he initiated the whole plan of campaign.
1 Palladium, Frankfort, Kentucky, November 13, 1798.
* A curious bit of internal evidence of this is found in the disingenuous reference in the governor's speech and in the fifth resolution to the clause in the Constitution with regard to the "migration or importation of such persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit.' (See Warfield, "Kentucky Resolutions," page 108, and McElroy, "Kentucky in the Nation's History," page 243, note.)
The Kentucky Resolutions were provoked by the act of Congress passed in the violent anti-French reaction of 1798, produced by the publication of the X. Y. Z. dispatches. These acts, consisting of what have come to be known as the Alien and Sedition laws, together with a naturalization act which was primarily intended to discriminate against French immigrants, and other laws of less importance,1 were a remarkable stretch of authority. Not only so, but they represented an extraordinary failure on the part of the national Government, and particularly of the President and the Federal party, to read the signs of the times. Instead of taking advantage of the wholesome reaction which had taken place in popular opinion, and winning the confidence of the more conservative elements in the democratic drift, the Federalist party proved itself as intemperate as the sympathizers with the French incendiaries. The bills as presented in Congress, especially the Sedition act, were of the most extreme character. The Sedition act was so amended as to remove the more radical features, but enough remained to give point to all that was said against the acts themselves and the party that enacted them.
Mr. Jefferson had already separated himself from the traditions of the past, had recognized fully that the need of the country was not merely the negation of antiFederalism, and had formulated for himself a policy that was ripe for enunciation. It had also become sufficiently clear that his position was acceptable to the great mass of the people, and that it did not represent hostility to the Constitution so much as the tendency to read into that document greater powers than a reasonable interpretation would justify. The choice of a name for the new party also showed Mr. Jefferson's recognition of the
'A notable difference between the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions is that the Virginia Resolutions deal only with the Alien and Sedition laws, while the Kentucky Resolutions denounce the whole body of objectionable laws seriatim. Warfield, "Kentucky Resolutions," ," p. 107.