Every couple of years the same drearily predictable charade repeats itself. This time we’re really going to limit government! Or so they tell us. We on the Right then dutifully compose our letters to the editor, attend rallies, and vote for candidates without whom, we are breathlessly assured, we shall all revert instantly to barbarism. And no matter who wins, the federal government grows and grows. The Right gets a bunch of pretty speeches, and the Left gets the victories.
The passive approach of crossing our fingers and hoping Washington will follow the Constitution has not worked. The only surprising thing about it is that anyone could have expected it to work in the first place. It is long past time for those of us who want to confine the federal government to its constitutional limits to try something different.
The time has come to revisit nullification, the quintessentially American mode of resistance against federal lawlessness that Thomas Jefferson urged as an essential ingredient of our political system. In the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, Jefferson insisted that the states needed a way to defend themselves against unconstitutional exercises of power by the federal government. Jefferson’s fear was that if the federal government had a monopoly on defining the scope of its own powers, it would be constantly discovering new ones. Likewise, James Madison urged in the Virginia Resolutions of 1798 that the states were “duty bound to resist” when the federal government violated the Constitution. (The reader will not be surprised to learn that Bill Clinton held no White House soiree in honor of the two hundredth anniversary of these documents in 1998.)
These principles were used for honorable purposes throughout antebellum American history. Virginia and Kentucky used them on behalf of free speech. The New England states employed them against unconstitutional searches and seizures. Numerous northern states used them against fugitive slave laws, provisions of which they considered unconstitutional notwithstanding the Constitution’s fugitive-slave clause. More than six decades after Jefferson penned the immortal words of the Kentucky Resolutions, the legislature of Wisconsin quoted them word for word in defense of its defiance of such laws.
Do American schoolchildren read about any of this? The question answers itself. They are about as likely to read that I, Tom Woods, am the king of England.
But all of a sudden, out of the clear blue, nullification is back. Fiscal conservatives and civil libertarians joined hands in 2005 to oppose the REAL ID Act, which involved the centralization and standardization of identification procedures. They had no idea how successful they would be. Two dozen states pledged to defy the law. Stung by this degree of resistance, the federal government gave up trying to enforce the Act.
Now, states are banding together to devise resistance measures against Obamacare, cap and trade, and a whole raft of constitutionally offensive legislation. Several states have already instituted Firearms Freedom Acts, which pledge the state to prevent the enforcement of federal gun regulations when the guns in question have never entered interstate commerce. (Color me skeptical that the recent Supreme Court decision means Americans’ Second Amendment rights are safe forever.)
So far, most conservative radio and television hosts have shied away from the issue. That’s a shame, to be sure, but it doesn’t change much. The Tea Party folks are going to nullify with or without them. Within six months these same media personalities will be huffing and puffing to catch up with what has been going on right under their noses.
But you, dear reader, ought to get in on the ground floor. The Tenth Amendment Center, for example, is sponsoring a tour of America called Nullify Now! (NullifyNow.com), which will bring these important ideas to major American cities and force them back into the American political discussion where they belong. My new book, Nullification: How to Resist Federal Tyranny in the 21st Century, gives you all the ammunition you need to understand and defend nullification as an essential defense mechanism for a free people.
And my “Interview with a Zombie” YouTube video shows you how the mainstream media will handle the issue, and how we should respond.
The rebirth of nullification is not welcome news to everyone. MSNBC and the New York Times do not want us to say or do these things. They like the situation just the way it is: we make lots of noise, and they rack up the victories. They are happy if we persist in the same failed and flawed strategy that has gotten us exactly nowhere. I for one would prefer not to give them the satisfaction.
It’s fine to hold conferences, write letters to the editor, and sign petitions. But at some point it becomes morally (and practically) necessary to do more than just wring our hands about the behavior of the federal government. At some point we in our states must say: we are not going to do it. Never did I suspect that the American people would grow angry and politically aware enough to put these great principles back on the table. Ideas I once covered as a historian I am now discussing as a commentator on current events. This is the healthiest development in American politics I have seen in my life. Everyone reading these words owes it to the cause of freedom to be a part of it. We have been played for fools long enough.
Take the time to explore Nullification: How to Resist Federal Tyranny in the 21st Century. Mike P.
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