In many ways the political history of the United States, starting with the Articles of Confederation and on through the drafting and implementation of the Constitution, has been a tug of war between states' rights and a stronger federal government. Despite George Washington's warnings on leaving office about the dangers of political parties, by the election of 1800 these two ideas were pitted against each other with the Federalists, represented by then-President John Adams, running against the Democratic-Republicans, represented by Thomas Jefferson, a strong advocate for states' and individual rights. (Ref 1)

States' Rights and the Constitution

The first governing document of the United States was the Articles of Confederation. However, the Articles favored states' rights to such an extent that the federal government could not levy taxes or even raise an army or navy. The United States Constitution replaced the articles in 1789 and tried to hold a balance between federal and states' rights. Though serving as the U.S. Ambassador to France at the time, Thomas Jefferson, through his correspondence, strongly influenced those advocating for a weaker central government. Eventually, many states, including New York and Virginia, premised their ratification of the Constitution on an amendment clearly specifying the rights of the states. This eventually became the 10th Amendment according to which, "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people."(Ref. 1,2,3)

States' Rights of Nullification

Like so many parts of the Constitution, the 10th Amendment remains open to interpretation. In 1798, with a Federalist majority, Congress was able to pass the Alien and Sedition Acts, which, among other things, restricted freedom of speech and the press in criticizing the government. In response, it is believed that in at least one draft of the Kentucky Resolutions, Jefferson not only repudiated the laws but advocated that each state had the right to nullify -- not follow -- any law passed by Congress that the state found to be unconstitutional. (Ref.3,5,6)

Jefferson as President

During his presidency from 1801 to 1809, Jefferson continued to oppose strong central government and oversaw Congress's repeal of the Alien and Sedition Acts. However, when certain northern states defied his Embargo Act of 1807 that prohibited trade with France and Britain, he mobilized the Army and Navy to enforce compliance, thus implying that he no longer favored the principle of nullification by the states. A strict constructionist who believed only in the rights specifically conveyed in the Constitution, he also went ahead with the Louisiana Purchase despite it not being clear that the president had the power to make major land purchases. (Ref.7)

Jefferson's Legacy

The idea that states could nullify federal law came to a head in the American Civil War, after which it generally fell out of favor. Even Jefferson had distanced himself from that idea during his lifetime. However, nullification became a matter of debate again in recent years when some states questioned mandatory compliance with the Affordable Care Act of 2010. In many ways, Jefferson's beliefs were reflected in the Supreme Court's 2012 decision negating the part of the law that attempted to coerce states into expanding their Medicaid coverage. (Refs. 8,9)