Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

H. Robert Baker

Second Advisor

Wendy Venet

Third Advisor

David Sehat


The Constitution of the United State has never been a document with a fixed and determinable meaning and demanded continual reinterpretation. During the early republic, legal and political battles over constitutional meaning were commonplace, leading to claims of disloyalty as well as threats of violence. Challenges to actions of the federal government often were done in the name of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions and the “Principles of ‘98.” Reflecting a strand of mainstream political thought, the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions were employed by Pennsylvanians, who militarily resisted federal efforts to enforce a Supreme Court decision, by New Englanders, who effectively nullified certain federal laws during the War of 1812, and by South Carolinians, who attempted to nullify a federal tariff.

Authored by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, respectively, in 1798, the Resolutions offered differing visions of the nation’s founding. Jefferson interpreted the Constitution as a contract between state governments, akin to a treaty between independent nations. Thus, unconstitutional actions by the federal government were a breach of the compact, and each state had a right to nullify the offending action. For Madison, the thirteen peoples of the several states, acting in their highest sovereign capacity, were the parties to the compact. Madison did not interpret the Constitution as a contract or treaty and did not deem every breach of the compact as justifying nullification by the people. Only a majority of the people could nullify actions of the federal government.