What Idea Is Promoted by the Concept of Nullification?

In the United States, the concept of nullification promotes the idea of states' rights in its asserting that a federal law can be resisted or nullified by a state government if that law is found to be one which is not specifically outlined in the U.S. Constitution. The underlying premise behind nullification is that the state should prevail in any disagreement between federal and state power. Supporters of nullification believe that the individual states maintain the right to declare a federal law as unconstitutional.

Individual states began to test the concept of nullification at the end of the 1700s when Virginia and Kentucky reacted to the federal government's passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts. The two states passed resolutions opposing the federal law. The 1799 Kentucky resolution's concluding statement was that it should be considered a formal submission of a "solemn protest" against the federal law. Although the resolution claimed that states had the right of nullification, it did not claim that states could exercise that right. Nullification was instead defined as a joint action taken by several states. Virginia's 1798 resolution did not define any specific action, but appealed to the other states in the Union for both their agreement and cooperation in the matter. However, this appeal for support was not met with success.

Further tests of the nullification concept arose from the federal passage of the Embargo Act of 1807 and the Tariff of 1832, the latter of which developed into what became known as the Nullification Crisis. The crisis was resolved without the use of force by President Andrew Jackson, but the issue of states' rights led to the belief in a right to secession and the eventual outbreak of the American Civil War.