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Dusting Off An Old Tool

Dan McLaughlin

Constitutional republics, such as the United States, are built on several key attributes essential for freedom and rights of the people. These include the rule of law, limitation of authority, separation of powers, and competition between jurisdictions. High school students learn these important principles in civics class. It is evident that our government has long been overstepping its limits and living outside the law. The three federal branches, the legislative, the executive, and the judicial, have been working in tandem to expand the power and scope of the federal government, in spite of their important purpose of checking centralized power. They favor monopoly over of competition.

There is another way to limit the federal government and protect the people from legislative over-reach, one that most civics students don’t hear anything about. Historian Thomas Woods has recovered an old but powerful idea from the dustbin of history. In a recent book, Dr. Woods describes what were known as the “Principles of ’98’,” specifically the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 and 1799, written by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, both of whom were intimately involved in the formation of the American republic.

While those resolutions were enacted by the respective states in protest of specific acts of congress, they provide a concise, powerful argument for the right and duty of the states, as parties to the Constitution of the United States, to check federal authority and protect their own people from abuse of centralized power. That right and responsibility was argued at various state ratifying conventions for the Constitution.

Nullification is the idea that all laws made by the federal government contrary to the Constitution are null and void and, therefore, are not law and are not binding upon the states or the people. Because they are null and void, the states can and should refuse to enforce them or have them enforced in their jurisdictions.

Dr. Woods has done a great service by shining light on this powerful tool for protecting the people and caging the beast that the federal government has become. Nullification has been forgotten by historians, but it has a long and honorable history and a powerful tradition in this country. It is based on the fundamental idea that the states and the people retain their rights, and surrender to the federal partnership only that very limited authority specifically enumerated in the founding document and the amendments.

While historians and national politicians may have discarded nullification, a term used by Jefferson himself, the people of the various states have not. Some states refused to enforce the fugitive slave laws of the 1800s, embargo acts, military conscription, and, in recent times, the Real ID act, federal drug laws, firearms laws, and a growing list of federal power grabs. The piling of one unconstitutional act upon another in a dizzying flurry has rightly gotten the attention of a once-complacent nation. That may be a very positive outcome of those laws. Students over the years have been taught an unquestioning reverence for national political power, and little thought has been given to its implications on the rights of individuals and the states. The growing awareness is an encouraging development and evidence that people may be ready for real change, the devolution of federal power to the states, as originally intended.

Many people cannot even conceive of that possibility, and widespread awareness of the process is important for enabling significant change. It is time for states to step up to the plate and act boldly in defense of their people. This book by Dr. Woods is targeted at a mass market and is easily readable, though thoroughly researched, with footnotes and references for those willing to dig deeper. He is also an engaging, delightful speaker. If you want to preserve your rights, you would do well by viewing his speeches and reading his various books, including his latest, “Nullification, How to Resists Federal Tyranny in the 21st Century. As the centralization of health care, transportation, education, science, welfare, and a laundry list of other initiatives rolls on, national leaders are trashing the constitution. The Feds themselves are not going to rescue it. It is up to you, up to us, up to the states.

Be informed, but more importantly, bind yourself as well as politicians to the chains of the constitution. Don’t empower them by asking for favors at the expense of others. Instead, empower state legislators to dust off this old tool and get to work.


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