Early American political thought about the Union’s nature was divided into two radically different perspectives. One of these was expressed by Thomas Jefferson’s 1798 Kentucky Resolutions, which viewed the Union as a loose compact of the states, whose legislatures could overrule and judge the constitutionality of the federal government’s actions. The South Carolina Declaration of Causes (1860) and the Mississippi Resolutions (1861) developed this position-using Jefferson’s premises to justify Southern states’ secession from the Union.
Jefferson portrayed the Union as voluntarily entered into by the states; the states were “not united on the principle of unlimited submission to their general government” (KR, 153). The Union was created by the ratification of the Constitution, which served as a “compact” by which the states “delegated… certain definite powers” to the general government (KR, 154). The government’s exercise of powers not expressly granted to it by the Constitution was thus illegitimate. For Jefferson, the Constitution both defined and limited the Union’s nature and essence.
To keep the national government one of limited and expressly delegated powers, Jefferson warned that it should not be “the exclusive or final judge of the extent of the powers delegated to itself” (KR, 154), since that would allow the government to define the scope of its powers and dissociate these powers from their original source-the states. The states-as parties to the Constitutional compact- have no common judge among them; hence, “each party has an equal right to judge for itself, as well of the infractions as of the mode and measure of redress” (KR, 154). Jefferson acknowledged state legislatures’ right to judge federal actions’ constitutionality.
The South Carolina and the Mississippi legislatures agreed with Jefferson that the Union was a compact among the “free and independent states,” whose sovereignty was asserted in the 1776 Declaration of Independence (SCDC, 310). In 1787, deputies sent by the states affirmed the “Articles of Union”-the Constitution-which defined the Union and required the states’ consent to take effect (SCDC, 311). The South Carolina Declaration emphasized that-while only nine out of thirteen states needed to ratify the Constitution for it to be adopted-those that refused to ratify it would have remained “separate, sovereign states… exercise[ing] the functions of… independent nation[s]” (SCDC, 311). Via the Tenth Amendment, the Constitution assured that all powers not expressly delegated to the national government were left to the states or the people, while the federal government remained “limited to the express words of the grant” (SCDC, 311).
In the Southern legislatures’ view, the Constitution established the “law of compact” (SCDC, 311), which required mutual reciprocity of obligations on behalf of all parties to the Union. If any party-such as the Northern states-refused to fulfill its Constitutional obligations and infringed on the rights of the other parties, the Union was dissolved and “the ends for which this government was instituted have been defeated” (SCDC, 312). The Mississippi Resolution asserted that whenever the compact is thus destroyed, “parties to the compact have the right to resume, each state for itself, such delegated powers” (MR, 314) as they had formerly granted the national government. According to the Mississippi Resolution, the Northern states’ explicit unwillingness to enforce the Constitution’s fugitive slave clause justified the Southern states’ secession from the Union (MR, 315). Jefferson’s Kentucky Resolutions and the declarations of the South Carolina and Mississippi legislatures viewed the Union as a compact of sovereign states that retained broad powers and could exercise them to counter federal abuses.