The Nullification Movement is a Revolution in Thought

By: Mike Maharrey

We are in the midst of a revolution.

But it’s not a revolution in the sense most people think of. It’s not a war fought with guns and bombs.

It’s a battle of ideas.

Today’s revolution is a revolution in thought.

John Adams, founding father and second president of the United States, described the American revolution in much the same way. In his 1818 letter to Hezekiah Niles, he wrote:

“But what do we mean by the American Revolution? Do we mean the American war? The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations. … This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people, was the real American Revolution.”

The Tenth Amendment Center was founded in 2006. At that time, nullification was a maligned idea relegated to the dustbin of history. In our early years, we counted the mere introduction of a non-binding resolution in support of the Tenth Amendment as a major success.

From those small seeds, a formidable nullification movement has grown up over the past 11-plus years. Last year alone, more than 450 bills to limit federal power in some way were introduced in state legislatures across the country.

From Small Things…

2017 marked the 250th anniversary of some of the most important essays in American history. Written by John Dickinson, the “Penman of the Revolution,” these 12 essays known as “Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania” were in response to the Townshend Acts.

In the first essay, Dickinson discussed the New York Restraining Act, which was the last of these British Acts. It was intended to punish the Assembly of New York, suspending its legislative powers for failing to fully comply with orders from the crown.

Dickinson wrote:

“If the parliament may lawfully deprive New York of any of her rights, it may deprive any, or all the other colonies of their rights; and nothing can possibly so much encourage such attempts, as a mutual inattention to the interests of each other. To divide, and thus to destroy, is the first political maxim in attacking those, who are powerful by their union.”

He continued on to say that, in essence, the rightful response at that moment would have been for other assemblies to have passed non-binding resolutions informing Parliament that the act was a violation of rights and that it should be repealed.

Why? His answer came through clearly in his signature, where he wrote the Latin phrase, Concordia res parvae crescunt.

“Small things grow great by concord.”

From its inauspicious beginnings, today’s nullification movement is growing into a revolutionary force.


It’s one thing to have lofty goals. Achieving them takes more than strong rhetoric. You have to have a solid, actionable strategy.

In response to the unconstitutional Alien and Sedition Acts, Thomas Jefferson used the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions of 1798 to lay out the principles of nullification. But the resolutions themselves did not nullify the Alien and Sedition Acts. Instead, Jefferson and Madison first created a framework for future action.

On November 17, 1798, one week after passage of the Kentucky Resolutions, Thomas Jefferson sent a draft to James Madison, along with a letter. He wrote:

I inclose you a copy of the draught of the Kentucky resolves. I think we should distinctly affirm all the important principles they contain, so as to hold to that ground in the future, and leave the matter in such a train as that we may not be committed absolutely to push the matter to extremities, & yet may be free to push as far as events will render prudent.

Jefferson and Madison stated their principles, justified their actions, and then left the door open to proceed with a practical strategy they could adapt as circumstances evolved.

At the TAC, we try to follow this blueprint. We always keep the ultimate goal in front of us, but we act strategically when and how specific situations allow. It’s a balancing act – a give and take – always keeping in mind that you don’t achieve radical change by abandoning radical principles.

William Lloyd Garrison took a similar tack in his battle against slavery in the U.S.

Garrison ranks as one of the greatest abolitionists in American history, and he understood this. He steadfastly stuck by his call for absolute and immediate emancipation of all slaves.

While it seems absurd to our 21st century sensibilities, total abolition of slavery was an idealistic, radical, extremist position in the mid-1800s. Principled abolitionists were generally reviled, even in the North. The broader abolitionist movement was dominated by pragmatists content with modest policy changes here and there. A lot of them were merely jockeying for political power. Garrison would have none of this. He believed slavery should end immediately, and he constantly said so. He wasn’t concerned about winning a popularity contest or convincing people he was properly mainstream. He unapologetically wore a badge of radicalism. He unwaveringly pursued the ideal.

But Garrison wasn’t just running around like a proverbial bull in a china shop. He had pragmatic reasons for maintaining his hard-core stance. He recognized that by pushing for the ultimate goal he was more likely to reach it.

“Urge immediate abolition as earnestly as we may, it will, alas! be gradual abolition in the end. We have never said that slavery would be overthrown by a single blow; that it ought to be, we shall always contend.”

Garrison understood that if he started by seeking half-measures, he would never end up with anything more than half-measures. He warned, “Gradualism in theory is perpetuity in practice.”

Economist and political philosopher Murray Rothbard put it this way in A Case for Radical Idealism:

“William Lloyd Garrison was not being ‘unrealistic’ when in the 1830s he first raised the glorious standard of immediate emancipation of the slaves. His goal was the morally proper one, and his strategic realism came in the fact that he did not expect his goal to be quickly reached …

Gradualism in theory indeed undercuts the goal itself by conceding that it must take second or third place to other non- or antilibertarian considerations. For a preference for gradualism implies that these other considerations are more important than liberty.”

At the TAC, we always keep the Constitution and liberty as our core objective.  But we also recognize that it will take a series of small victories to reach our ultimate goal.

We’ll never abandon our radical idealism. But we will always work strategically, step-by-step, to achieve our objectives.

The State of the Nullification Movement Report tells the current story of our efforts. Read it in full here.