on April 27, 2004
William Watkins "Reclaiming the American Revolution" is a great study of the Alien and Sedition Acts and Jefferson and Madison's Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions. Watkins traces the conflict between the Federalist monocrats and the Jeffersonian republicans during the 1790's. Jefferson and Madison are shown in their true glory as liberatian defenders of the principles of the American Revolution, the "spirit of 1776" as Jefferson put it. As the Federalist Party began to institute tyrannical measures like the Sedition Act and Alien bill to cripple the Jeffersonians, Jefferson and Madison conceived of measures to defended the rights of the states and the people.
Watkins also goes into detail about the nature of the Federal government, the original intent of it's framers and the effect the Virginia and Kentucy Resolutions had on the Nullification dispute between South Carolina and the Federal government in 1832. Anyone interested in the principles of liberty, and the American founding will love this book.
on August 4, 2005
It's difficult in the modern era, even with the internet and all the literature available, to gain an accurate and honest understanding of the early history of what would become the American Republic. As a product of the public school system, I had to work extra hard to unlearn all the nonsense I'd been taught in what I now see as government run indoctrination camps(the schools "teach" enough info to the kids to prevent them from someday thinking critically about the structure of their government).
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America (1776) essentially declared (aside from the slavery issue) that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. People have an unalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and the people can throw off governments which become destructive of these ends and form new governments based on these principles. Essentially, the people are the "ultimate sovereigns" (in the words of Watkins), and elected respesentatives hold only legislative sovereignty. THESE ARE THE CORE PRINCIPLES OF SELF-GOVERNMENT.
The Principles of the Resolutions essentially answer a question which I believe is more relevant today than ever... what defense do the people have against a central government which doesn't abide by it's rules or by restraints and limitations on it's powers? The Answer, according to Jefferson primarily, was for the State houses to interpose between the Federal government and citizens and to declare Federal usurpations of power which overstep the enumerated powers outlined in Article I Section VIII as void and of no force (nullification).
Watkins does a remarkable job of clearly explaining the events of the period, explaining the principles of the resolutions, providing detailed citations for every source of information (so you can check them yourself), explaining the motives behind the words and actions of people like Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton, explaining how the structure of American Federalism became corrupted, and what can be done to bring the Constitution back to life... and the answers can be found in the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798.
My ONLY complaint is that Watkins, during his discussion of Judicial usurpations, only briefly mentions how the Bill of Rights (a shield erected by the States against the Federal government) became a weapon the Federal Courts would use against the States and the principles of Self-Government. He only mentions the "incorporation doctrine" once, but Watkins does include a quotation in this brief analysis which acknowledges that the incorporation of the Bill of Rights was the most egregious act of usurpation in the court's history, where the court essentially rewrote the meaning of the Bill of Rights. I just wish Watkins had gone into more detail on this topic, but at least he did mention Barron v. City of Baltimore (1833) where John Marshall briefly states in a concise opinion the meaning of the First 10 Amendments of the Constitution and how they can only be applied against actions of the Federal Governemnt.
Kudos to William Watkins Jr. and his masterpiece. It's a crime that this text has received next to no publicity that I'm aware of.
on June 29, 2005
Rarely do you hear about the critical importance of the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions. We hear of the Constitution, Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights. But I would say the average American citizen is ignorant concerning these documents.
Watkins does a tremendous job combining the history of these resolutions with the political ingenuity of both Madison and Jefferson. I guarantee that when you finish reading this book your knowledge will increase regarding the Constitution and how our founding fathers systematically dealt with the issue of sovereignty. Where does it reside? The difference between legislative sovereignty and ultimate sovereignty. He presents a balanced presentation of both views: those who support a strong centralized government with a broad interpretation of the constitution, versus those who were strong States' Rights advocates and a limited interpretation of the constituion. After presenting a concise yet thorough history of the resolutions he describes the effects of resolutions and how succeeding presidential administrations and state legislatures appealed to the resolutions to prevent encroachments. And he ends with a beautiful application to our day and how the government has constantly overstepped its constitutional boundaries and what we should do. And then he adds his own ideas as to what we can do as a people to make sure our rights stay in tact. In other words, he presents the problem and the solution.
Watkins makes bold comments in relation to how the framers interpreted the Constitution and how to remedy the encroachments of the national government. But every, and I mean every bold assertion is backed by tangible evidence. Unlike scholars who defend centralized government (whether ignorantly or knowingly) with vague examples and insufficient evidence, Watkins doesn't leave any stone unturned. And in addition you will find in his bibliography notes not only references, but added commentary from various poltical figures of the day. So in essence you get more than the views of Jefferson and Madison, but you get a view of both parties the Federalist (under the leadership of Alexander Hamiltion) and the Republicans (under the leadership of Jefferson). He explains how Patrick Henry, John Taylor, John Breckenridge and others saw the issues. But never does he down play the issue.
It is sad that some historians down play the rightful role of these Resolutions. Jack Rakove goes so far to paint Jefferson and Madison as radical and going too far to assert that the State legislatures could 'legally' check the powers of the national government. Jack Rakove states in "Madison and the Creation of the American Republic" (2nd Ed) Madison simply intended that the Bill of Rights was adopted for this purpose. Ok, well what happens when those rights are violated? Who now is the arbiter to determine whether the government has overstepped its boundaries or not? Well, Watkins makes it clear. The state legislatures were intended for this purpose. But he is fair to show the differences in the logic of both Jefferson and Madison in their view of Nullification and Interposition.
To sum it up in a little over 270 pgs Watkins enlightens the American public to the need of reform within our current government structure, and he shows how the principles of the Kentucky and Virginia resolutions have been carried out in history to reserve the rights of the people and the government from expanding its power, and how the same thing is needed today. I could not put this book down, and I was upset when I found how much I was not taught in my early American history classes.
on October 12, 2005
Mr. Watkins' outstanding work details with precise scholarship the forgotten essential truth inherent in our Constitution, that neither the Supreme Court nor any branch of the federal government is the ultimate arbiter of the Constitution's meaning or the boundaries of power it draws between the limited delegated powers of the federal government and those reserved to the states and their people. Rather, the states and their people have a co-equal right to make that determination, and further, as the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions rightly provide, our state governments have the authority and duty to protest, resist, and nullify those laws, rulings and actions of the federal government that encroach upon the reserved sovereign rights of the states and their people to make decisions within the scope of their reserved powers exclusively through their elected state legislatures. If you want to know what Thomas Jefferson would say about the unconstitutionally overgrown state of our dictatorial federal government and the solution for restoring a Constitutional, limited federal government, then Mr. Watkins' book is a must.
Martyn Babitz, Esquire, Author of THE ILLUSION OF FREEDOM: How To Restore The True Constitution And Reclaim Liberty Now
on July 12, 2011
I discovered William Watkins' "Reclaiming the American Revolution - The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions and their Legacy" while searching for the second volume of James Morton Smith's "Freedom's Fetters: The Alien and Sedition Acts and American Civil Liberties". In the preface to the existing volume (see my review if you're interested - it may provide useful background for Watkins' book), Smith noted his plan for a second volume addressing the Kentucky and Virginia Resolution and the opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts. Sadly, I can find no trace of the intended second volume. Happily, Watkins' book has filled that gap very nicely.
Watkins' book has been capably reviewed by five other reviewers who have also generated an intelligent discussion in the comments to one review. With this existing base, I'll limit myself to a few comments that I hope will add to the discussion.
Watkins' book is a scholarly history of the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions followed by a proposed constitutional amendment which he believes would reestablish the shared sovereignty of the states with the federal government. Watkins has done a commendable job of keeping the history section focused on historical facts and not distorted by his agenda of the latter part of the book.
I read this book to get a better understanding of the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions and how they reflected (along with such subsequent events as the Hartford Convention and Tariff Nullification) the concepts of state sovereignty that held prior to the Civil War. Such concepts include a state's interposition between its citizens and the federal government, nullification federal laws, and secession. Watkins thoroughly described the Resolutions and followed their influence through the Civil War era and beyond.
There were actually five documents related to the Resolutions which ranged from fairly mild to very strong. Listed chronologically, they were:
1. Thomas Jefferson's original draft of the Kentucky Resolutions (September 1798). This text was the strongest in Watkins' judgment. It explicitly asserted the right of a single state to nullify acts of congress and to prevent their enforcement within the state.
2. The Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 (November 1798). John Breckinridge edited Jefferson's draft and introduced them in the Kentucky Legislature. He toned down Jefferson's text and eliminated any explicit reference to nullification. However, he kept Jefferson's original phrases declaring the Alien and Sedition Acts were "not law but altogether void and of no effect". (That sounds pretty close to nullification to me.)
3. The Virginia Resolves (December 1798). Watkins' describes the Virginia Resolves, written by James Madison, as the most moderate of the documents. Madison did not attempt to nullify the Alien and Sedition Acts, nor did he claim the right of a state to do so. However, he did assert the right and duty of the states to interpose "in case of a deliberate, palpable, and dangerous exercise of other powers" by the federal government not granted by the Constitution. (I'm not sure what the legal difference is between interposing and nullifying.)
4. The Kentucky Resolutions of 1799 (November 1799). These seem to have been a response to the other states that offered no support for the Kentucky-Virginia position. In this version, Kentucky declared that leaving the determination of the constitutionality of federal laws to the federal government was a path to despotism and that nullification by the states of federal acts not consistent with the Constitution was the rightful remedy. However, Kentucky would "bow to the laws of the Union" while continuing to oppose in a constitutional manner every violation of the Constitution.
5. Madison's Report of 1800 (January 1800). Also a response to the other states' failure to support Kentucky and Virginia, Madison again asserted the right of state interposition in cases of federal usurpations "deeply and essentially affecting the vital principles" of the Constitution. However, having asserted this right, he did not choose to exercise it in the case of the Alien and Sedition Laws.
I'll transition now from history to Watkins' proposed constitutional amendment, which would create a new Constitutional Commission, composed of one commissioner chosen by each state, with the power to judge the constitutionality of any law when petitioned to do so by 20% of the states. I don't have a strong objection to this proposed amendment, but question whether it would accomplish Watkins' actual goals in the unlikely event that it is ever ratified. In his presentation of constitutional history from 1800 to date, Watkins points out that the gradual but relentless expansion of federal power has been based on three clauses in the Constitution that have been repeatedly stretched from their "original intent":
1. The "common defense" and "general welfare" clauses in the preamble and Article 1, Section 8.
2. The "regulate commerce" clause in Article 1, Section 8.
3. The "necessary and proper" clause in Article 1, Section 8.
A more direct remedy to the expansion of federal power might be an amendment that clarified the meanings of these clauses to restore them to their "original intent". Such an amendment might include the following clarifications:
1. The preamble to the Constitution does not confer any powers not explicitly conferred elsewhere in the seven articles and subsequent amendments of the Constitution.
2. Article 1, Section 8, limits the power of Congress to levy taxes for any purpose other than for expenditures on "common defense" and "general welfare". The use of "common defense" and "general welfare" Article 1, Section 8, does not confer any powers on Congress not elsewhere explicitly conferred in the seven articles and subsequent amendments of the Constitution.
3. The power of Congress to "regulate commerce ... among the several states" in Article 1, Section 8, applies only to those specific goods and services that are in fact sold, transported, or provided across state lines. This power does not extend to similar goods and services sold or provided within a state, or to the manufacture or production of any goods.
4. The power of Congress "to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers" cited in Article 1, Section 8, does not confer any powers to Congress not elsewhere explicitly conferred in the seven articles and subsequent amendments of the Constitution.
I offer this hypothetical amendment to illustrate an alternative, more direct approach to the problem Watkins addresses, but I do not necessarily advocate its adoption. It would be more useful if someone (with more knowledge of law than I) were to try to evaluate the impact of this change on existing federal laws, keeping in mind the adage "be careful what you wish for, you might get it". At least this approach seems more open to this type of analysis. With Watkins' proposed amendment, there is no way of evaluating what the Constitutional Commission might do. At least it is constrained to considering those laws brought before it by 20% of the states.
As a closing thought, trying to reverse the growth of federal power is probably akin to tilting at windmills. I remember Barry Goldwater's 1960 remark in The Conscience of a Conservative: The growth of federal power is seldom due to broken promises by politicians; all too often it's due to kept promises. The voting public got what they asked for, constitutional or not. A tremendous change in the demands and voting patterns of the public would be required to return to Madison's and Jefferson's Constitution. Unfortunately, I can't stretch my usual optimism to include this change.
on January 20, 2016
This is a fascinating little book, and can add to one's insights about American History. Very soon after the ratification of the Constitution, Jefferson and Madison realized that the Federalist Party was quickly directing the ideology and activities of government toward the very "tyranny" that the Revolution had been fought to escape. They prepared for various levels of principled resistance, including interposition, nullification and, if necessary, secession. This book examines the preparation of and the language of the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions. The Virginia Resolution was Madison's work, milder, for interposition rather than nullification, and intended as a flare sent up to see if any other states would respond. The Kentucky Resolution included more of Jefferson's work, more aggressive, leaning to nullification. The Revolution of 1800 rendered the Resolutions moot in the mind of the two authors, but they fueled the nullification activities of Calhoun and others in South Carolina. As the book states, "The consolidation feared by Anti-Federalists, the Jeffersonian Republicans, and the South Carolina nullifiers, has come to pass." How can we revive the spirit of the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions today?
on January 19, 2016
A good volume for examining the American inheritance lost and being lost.
William Watkins has written an excellent book that is long on history and short on compelling logic. He wants us to regard the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions (hereafter simply called K&JRs)as binding documents that are essential guides as to how to read the Constitution especially in regards to issues of federalism. He ultimately fails to deliver a convincing argument as to why the K&VRs should be hailed in such high esteem. But along the way he gives us an excellent (if tendentious) reading of the history of the K&VRs. He also gives us a extremely telescoped history of how the country went off the true path of federalism and some provocative suggestions as to how to correct the situation.
Since I like to accentuate the positive, I will summarize his historical narrative. I then want to discuss briefly the major flaws in his argument as I see it and then speak a little to his suggestions for restoring federalism.
Watkins gives us what has become one standard reading of the Founding and Early National periods. He believes that the only legitimate reading of the Constitution is the compact theory which holds that the Constitution was ratified by the people of the seperate and sovereign states. As such it is an agreement by the states to delegate specific, enumerated and limited powers to the federal government. The people are the ultimate source of sovereignity, the states are supreme in their areas of government and the federal government is supreme in those areas to which the individual states are not competent (foreign affairs, interstate commerce, etc.) This was the understanding of everyone at the time of the ratification and was so argued by the Federalists during the state conventions. Those rascals almost immediately begin to go back on their word once the federal government was established. Hamilton established a national bank, assumed state debts (in order to seduce the money men to the federal government) and tried to establish a national economic program. The nadir was reached with the Alien and Sedition Acts which were bravely (but anonymously) countered by the K&VRs written by Jefferson and Madison. The resistance turned the tide of the Federalist betrayal and resulted in Jefferson's Revolution of 1800. The K&VRs were then used by almost everyone (except, of course, for the SCOTUS of John Marshall- oh, and the post-War of 1812 Congress- oh, and Jefferson when he felt like engaging in the Louisiana Purchase and the embargo)up until the Nullification Crisis. The end of the influence of the K&VRs came when Lincoln was elected. And so on.
I think that is a pretty fair summation of the majority of Watkin's historical argument. Here are what I see as the problems:
1. Watkins gives us a historical narrative that is divorced from the day to day motives of the political players who people his history. Yes, the K&VRs were referenced throughout our early national history. Always by people who were out of power, who were a minority nationally at the time and who were unhappy about being out of power. Which leads me to
1a. Watkins sees all issues as being about federalism. There was another dynamic at play in this history which was the rise of democracy and the end of deferential politics. The Republicans/ Federalists were both trying to deal with a franchise that was rapidly growing. More and more people (white men) were voting. When local elites/majorities were overwhelmed by national elites/majorities they complained using the rhetoric of federalism. Somewhat comparable to how the current parties try to beat each other on the head with the rhetoric of national security.
2. This is the big one for me. What gives the K&VRs any standing? They were submitted by two states and no states answered positively. They were ignored or condemned. Does the election of 1800 somehow convey constitutional legitimacy on them? Nope. No more then the election of 1936 conveyed constitutional legitimacy on FDR's programs. Watkins at one point tries to give them legitimacy by pointing out that the K&VRs were referred to time and time again by various factions during various debates, e.g., the New England states during the embargo crisis. This is exactly the sort of reasoning that led Madison to accept a national bank late in his life. This might be a legitimate source of authority but it needs more of a legal foundation then just Watkins' saying so.
3. There were many other, equally legitimate, more national contemporary interpretations of the Constitution then that one put forth in the K&VRs. Watkins acts as if the theories of Marshall and Wilson to name two were inherently absurd or duplicitous. They weren't. He also ignores the third option argued for by Pendleton against both Jefferson and Hamilton during the debate on the national bank. It is simply inaccurate to say that the compact theory was the only legitimate theory of constitutioanl interpretation. I refer the reader to Commentaries on the Constitution 1790-1860 by Elizabeth Bauer.
I will not go on to say why I think Watkins' opinion on Lincoln is almost laughable. Suffice it to say that he suggests that if only Lincoln had listened to Garrison's advice the Civil War might have been avoided and slavery ended peacefully. Okay, if you say so.
I want to discuss one more flaw from a philosophical perspective. Watkins confuses the types of rights that are suggested by the words nullification and secession. There is no right to nullification and/or interposition in the Constitution. There is no warrant for those rights. Secession is a different animal altogether. Secession is inherent to sovereignty and is implied by the ability of people to create a government in the first place. In that sense it is a precivil and natural right and has nothing to do with the Constitution as well (except for arguably the 9th Amendment). It must be said however that the country or state that you secede from may not like it and may want to kick your booty.
As for Watkins' solution to the issue of how states can challenge the ursurptions of the national government- he wants to create a Constitutional Commission with one member from each state. If 1/5 of the state legislatures request the CC to rule on a measure or action of any branch of the federal government, they are obligated to convene and review that ruling and action. If 3/4s of the CC members vote against the measure, it is unconstitutional (see pp.154-156 for Watkins' discussion).
I admit that this is worth discussing although I think that the 1/5 requirement is too low.
I also want to suggest that Watkins' is too dismissive of our Article V rights to amend the Constitution. Both Amendments 11 and 16 were the people directly responding to Supreme Court decisions they didn't like. It has been done in the past and can be done again. We the people just have to get off our couches and get back in the streets where we belong.
I enjoyed this book immensely and learned from it in spite of my many disagreements. My thanks to Watkins for all his intellectual labors.
on April 19, 2015
Excellent in all aspects!