I consider, then, the power to annul a law of the United States, assumed by one State, incompatible with the existence of the Union, contradicted expressly by the letter of the Constitution, unauthorized by its spirit, inconsistent with every principle on which It was founded, and destructive of the great object for which it was formed.
My co-blogger Paul has a first rate post here at The American Catholic in which he discusses why nullification, the idea that a state can opt out of a federal law, is a truly bad idea. In the comments to the post Thomas Woods shows up. Mr. Woods is the foremost promoter of nullification today.
One of the many hilarious things about this latest boomlet for nullification created by Thomas Woods and his cronies in crankdom, is how it flies in the face of American history, not only in theory but in practice.
They seize upon the Kentucky Resolutions and the Virginia Resolution of 1798 without really understanding what was going on. These were part and parcel of the ongoing political war of the Republicans against the Federalists, and as political theater they were quite successful in helping rouse public fury against the Alien and Sedition Acts which led to Republican victory at the polls in 1800. Once the Resolutions had helped achieve success at the polls, they were quietly abandoned by the Republicans since they had served their political purpose.
In the Nullification Crisis of 1832, South Carolina’s first attempt to destroy the Union and start a civil war, a compromise was ultimately worked out in Congress to lower the tariffs and the nullification movement in South Carolina collapsed, much to the chagrin of some fireeaters like Rhett who would still be around to help start the Civil War in the secession crisis of 1860-61.
Modern day advocates of nullification attempt to dragoon the personal liberty laws passed by some Northern states to attempt to get around the fugitive slave law into the nullification debate. (I suspect that this example is drug in to get around the fact that throughout the history of this country nullification has often been allied with racist movements.) Of course such attempts were futile as the US Supreme Court ruled in 1842 that such laws were unconstitutional, as they clearly were at the time. What of course ended the fugitive slave law was the Civil War and the constitutional amendments that resulted. Mr. Woods, to show his thanks for this, is welcome to join me and my family next summer when we go to Lincoln’s tomb to pray for the repose of his soul.
Nullification was often brought up by segregationists in their “massive resistance” campaign against Brown v. Board of education. As in the rest of American history, nullification went nowhere fast in this less than stellar moment in our nation’s history. Martin Luther King, Jr. referred to this in his I Have a Dream Speech in 1963:
“I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification” — one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”
What made nullification more than a historical footnote today is of course ObamaCare, and the justified opposition to it, which I fully share. However, the political process is working. The Republicans took the House, made gains in the Senate, and control most governorships and state legislatures, largely because the Democrats acted completely fecklessly with no concern for the public opposition they were building. Suits against ObamaCare are proceeding with some success in the federal courts. Crack-brained nostrums like nullification are not needed in America, while our political and legal systems are functioning, which they are.
I do confess however, that I almost hope that one of the States is foolish enough to think that nullification could work. The first federal lawsuit over the issue would rapidly establish that nullification has as much standing in the federal courts as a flat earth has in a geography class. The state government would then be in a position of obeying the ruling of the federal court, or calling the national guard to arms. One guess as to which course they would choose. Of course if they chose to attempt armed revolution I assume that Mr. Woods and his friends will be on the barricades, although that would be somewhat more dangerous than writing books or debating on the internet.