by Derek Sheriff

Last December, when Tennessee Rep. Susan Lynn, R-Mount Juliet, said she would introduce legislation which would declare null and void any federal law the state deems unconstitutional, some people were horrified. Rep. Lynn was specifically targeting the health-care reform legislation that was pending at that time. But the reaction that many people had to her language was not an expression of their support for Obamacare.

Too many Americans hear the terms “states’ rights” or the word “nullification” and immediately think of racial prejudice, Jim Crow laws and school segregation. Honestly, if all I had to rely on was what I remember being taught in public school, I would probably tell you the history of it all went like this:

The theory of nullification was first invented in the 1800s’ by advocates of slavery. They used nullification of tarrifs as a test run in the 1820s. Of course, what they really had in mind was maintaining the institution of slavery against any possible attempt by the federal government to abolish it. Then America fought the Civil War in order to end slavery, but the ideas of states’ rights and nullification were later revived in the 1950s’ by belligerent white southerners in an attempt to block the racial integration of schools. The Civil Rights Movement started and the feds had to step in and force the southern states to treat everyone equally. THE END.

That’s a rough, abbreviated version of the narrative that was handed to me, but it gives you an idea of what many Americans think they know about states’ rights and nullification. Fortunately, thanks to people like Tom Woods, Thomas DiLorenzo, and many others, I know today that this was a gross misrepresentation of the classical liberal states’ rights tradition. Then again, (and it’s not my intention to be prideful here), I’m not like most Americans. And If you’re reading this, you probably aren’t either.

Civic Illiteracy

In 1798, Jefferson and Madison articulated the concepts of nullification and interposition in the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, which were passed in response to to the hated Alienand Sedition Acts. But the ideas which support nullification and interposition were actually expressed earlier during the ratifying convention of Virginia by the Federalists themselves!

Given the fact, however, that most Americans cannot even correctly name all three branches of our federal government, it’s probably a safe bet that they have never heard of the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions or the fact that nullification was used to assist runaway slaves.

So should it really come as any surprise that many people in Tennessee recoiled in horror at Rep. Susan Lynn’s comments about nullification? Rep. Mike Turner of Tennessee’s 51st District responded with a sarcastic and condescending comment that probably expressed the sentiment of many Tennessee’s left-liberal elites:

“Susan Lynn is yearning for times gone by,” Turner said. “Maybe we could put the poor people back to sharecropping and slavery and let the people up at the big house have all the nice things. We’ve already had that fight about states’ rights.”

Lynn responded to Turner’s comment by saying:

“I can’t even imagine that’s a serious comment.”

Rep. Turner’s comments resemble some of the incredibly ignorant and / or vicious comments directed against today’s advocates of nullification that frequently appear in the bologoshpere. One particular blogpost I stumbled upon really embodies the either extremely ignorant or wholly deceptive attempt to associate today’s proponents of states’ rights and nullification with segregationists, white supremacists and domestic terrorists:

“Why is it that the extremist teabaggers are not called traitors even though they are basically calling for an overthrow of the democratically elected U.S. government? There latest stunt should seal it. They are calling for a long rejected theory called Nullification, and at least one treasonous..blogger and teabagger is pushing it.”

The Compromise of 1850 and How Abolitionists Used Nullification

In 1850, Congress compromised in order to hold the Union together against the divisive issue of slavery. Since the preservation of the Union (Northern control of the South’s economy), rather than the abolition of slavery was foremost in the minds of influential Republican bankers, manufacturers and heads of corporations, this compromise made perfect sense.

Part of this compromise was the passage of more stringent fugitive slave legislation that compelled citizens of all states to assist federal marshals and their deputies with the apprehension of suspected runaway slaves and brought all trials involving alleged fugitive slaves under federal jurisdiction. It included large fines for anyone who aided a slave in their escape, even by simply giving them food or shelter. The act also suspended habeas corpus and the right to a trial by jury for suspected slaves, and made their testimony non-admissible in court. The written testimony of the alleged slave’s master, on the other hand, which could be presented to the court by slave hunters, was given preferential treatment.

CONTINUED at length