Nullification Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The theory that the states are the final arbiters of the limits of national authority and that each may veto the enforcement of federal laws it determines to be unconstitutional, at least within its own boundaries.

First articulated by Thomas Jefferson,Jefferson, Thomas in his draft of the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, nullification rests on the theory that the Constitution of the United States is a compact among the sovereign states. The authorities of the national government are carefully limited, encompassing only those powers surrendered by the states. Because the national government is a creation of this compact, it cannot judge the limits of its own authorities under it. States, having no superior authority among them, must each judge for themselves whether the national government has exceeded those limited grants of authority.

The Supreme Court, in cases such as Chisholm v. Georgia[case]Chisholm v. Georgia[Chisholm v. Georgia] (1793), Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee[case]Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee[Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee] (1816), McCulloch v. Maryland[case]McCulloch v. Maryland[MacCulloch v. Maryland] (1819), and Cohens v. Virginia[case]Cohens v. Virginia[Cohens v. Virginia] (1821), adopted the opposing view, that the Constitution is a compact among the people, acting as a national community. The Constitution establishes a federal government of limited authorities that are to be given broad interpretations and the operation of which cannot be limited by the states. In Ableman v. Booth[case]Ableman v. Booth[Ableman v. Booth] (1859), the Court rebuffed Wisconsin’s attempt to frustrate enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and affirmed the authority of the Court to determine the constitutionality of federal legislation. This authority was reaffirmed in Cooper v. Aaron[case]Cooper v. Aaron[Cooper v. Aaron] (1958).

Ableman v. Booth

Chisholm v. Georgia

Cohen v. Cowles Media Co.

Cooper v. Aaron


Jefferson, Thomas

McCulloch v. Maryland

Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee

Categories: History