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Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersLiving the Revolution: America, 1789-1820
Living the Revolution: America, 1789-1820
Topic: Predicaments of Early Republican LifeTopic: ReligionTopic: PoliticsTopic: ExpansionTopic: Equality
Topic: Politics
Overview of Living the Revolution
Resource Menu: Politics
Text 1. Government and Liberty
Text 2. Agriculture and Manufacturing
Text 3. George Washington
Text 4. State and Federal Power
» Reading Guide
•  Link


Text 5. Thomas Jefferson
Text 6. National Identity
Text 7. The Politics of Foreign Affairs
RESOURCE MENU » Reading Guide Link

Reading Guide
4.  On the Power of State and Federal Government
- Virginia Resolutions of 1798 to nullify the Alien and Sedition Acts
- Counter-Resolution of Massachusetts, 1799

  Virginia Resolution
Virginia Resolution

During the Quasi-War with France in the late 1790s, the Federalist Congress passed the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts, primarily to stifle the protest of Democratic-Republicans who were generally pro-French. Fifteen newspaper editors were prosecuted under the acts, which generated intense opposition. Here, at a time of impending war, was a serious test of the First Amendment and a head-to-head battle over the allocation of state and federal power in the new republic.

In the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, Jefferson and Madison argued that a state could declare a federal law unconstitutional (a position they later reconsidered due to its implication of secession rights). Seven states presented counter-resolutions, some also defending the acts. Both sides claimed to protect the cherished new Constitution. The controversy was pivotal in the 1800 elections in which the Democratic-Republicans became the ascendant party. We recommend that you read the Virginia Resolution and the Massachusetts counter-resolution, skimming those of the other states. 5 pages.


Discussion questions
  ·  How do the states frame their arguments? What goals are shared by the opposing sides?
  ·  How do the states couch their arguments in ethical as well as political terms?
  ·  What would be the fatal result for the nation if the states could, or could not, nullify federal laws?
  ·  What arguments are presented for and against the constitutionality of the Alien and Sedition Acts?
  ·  How do the resolutions reflect Washington's advice in his Farewell Address?
  ·  How does the sense of impending war affect the debate?
  ·  Judging by these documents, in how much danger of "civil discord" was the fledgling nation?


» Link


Topic Framing Questions
  •  What core political issues defined themselves in the new republic?
  •  What caused the greatest optimism and anxiety among American leaders?
  •  What do the religious overtones in these political texts express?
  •  What national identity evolved in the three decades from 1789 to 1820?




Toolbox: Living the Revolution: America, 1789-1820
Predicaments | Religion | Politics | Expansion | Equality


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