The Return of Nullification

Today is the official release date for my new book, Nullification: How to Resist Federal Tyranny in the 21st Century. Nullification, as many readers of this site already know, refers to the power of a state to refuse to enforce an unconstitutional federal law. Most Americans have never heard of the idea, or know of it only in caricature — which is pretty much the way the New York Times likes it.

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When he memorably laid out the case for nullification in the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, Thomas Jefferson argued that if the federal government were allowed to hold a monopoly on determining what its powers were, we would have no right to be surprised when it kept discovering new ones. I’ve elaborated on all this in previous articles.

This important — if routinely distorted or even forgotten — history takes on unexpected relevance today, with a resurgence of interest in nullification growing all over the country, and no shortage of unconstitutional laws to which to apply it. The Tenth Amendment Center’s Legislative Tracking Page gives you some idea of the extent of a movement that is only just getting started. The purpose of my book Nullification is to make the strongest, most solidly referenced case I can in support of one of the healthiest developments in American political life in decades, and to serve as a kind of handbook for those who are serious about pursuing it.

Part II of the book contains eleven important documents hardly any American has read, but which lend additional support to the case for nullification. One of these documents has not appeared in print anywhere since 1835, yet it makes some of the strongest arguments for nullification, and against critics, I have ever read.

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You can imagine what the response of critics will be to a book like this. Let me put that more strongly: you can script the critical replies down to the last syllable. If the book’s arguments are addressed at all, they will be treated at a strictly second-grade level. (Official Left and Right agree on more than they care to admit, an unswerving commitment to nationalism being one of those things.) The rest of the so-called reply will run like this: Nullification is a secret plot to restore the southern Confederacy, and Woods himself is a sinister person with wicked intentions, before which all his fancy moral and constitutional arguments are nothing but a devious smokescreen.

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Anyone who actually reads the book, on the other hand, will discover, among many other things, that the Principles of ’98 — as these decentralist ideas came to be known — were in fact resorted to more often by northern states than by southern, and from 1798 through the second half of the nineteenth century were used in support of free speech and free trade, and against the fugitive-slave laws, unconstitutional searches and seizures, and the prospect of military conscription, among other examples. Nullification was employed not in support of slavery but against it.

Today, political decentralization is gathering steam in all parts of the country, for all sorts of reasons. I fail to see the usefulness of the term "neo-Confederate" — whatever this Orwellian neologism is supposed to mean — in describing a movement that includes California’s proposal to decriminalize marijuana, two dozen states’ refusal to abide by the REAL ID Act, and a growing laundry list of resistance movements to federal government intrusion. As states north and south, east and west, blue and red, large and small discuss the prospects for political decentralization, the zombies can intone scary-sounding propaganda words, instead of engaging in rational argument, all they like. The grownups, meanwhile, have important matters to discuss.

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Who’s the book’s intended audience? Well, anyone and everyone, of course, as any author will tell you. But it may have particular appeal to those who actually want to roll back government power, who are prepared to embrace a new approach (given that all previous efforts against Washington’s expansion have been abject failures), and who aren’t altogether convinced that a vote for Mitt Romney in 2012 means the republic is restored. The book can also help state legislators who are unaware of or on the fence about nullification, by reassuring them that in taking this seemingly radical step they will be on eminently solid historical and constitutional ground — and that lots of state legislatures are already doing it. It also takes aim at the various objections that have been raised against nullification, from the merely uncomprehending (doesn’t this violate the Supremacy Clause?), to the more practical (wouldn’t nullification be chaotic?), to the historical (isn’t this all about slavery and oppression?).

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The various categories of bad guy — e.g., law professors, Chris Matthews, the New York Times — have responded to the return of nullification about as you’d expect them to. Why, the stupid rubes think they can resist their overlords! Smear! Destroy! Crush! To the extent that such critics make any arguments at all, as opposed to mere character assassination, they either beg the question entirely or reveal a lack of acquaintance with the primary source material that would be embarrassing if such people were capable of embarrassment.

As I noted above, I’ve actually included a good portion of that source material in Part II of Nullification. Including these documents (1) makes it marginally more difficult for critics to pretend such documents do not exist, (2) helps supply advocates of nullification with additional supporting material, and (3) arms high school and college students with material they can use to drive their teachers and professors crazy, since almost none of them will be familiar with it.

As I promote the book I’ll surely be posting about my exploits on the blog, as well as on my Facebook page, my Twitter account, and my YouTube channel. It’s hard to say whether a book like this will get much media exposure, so I’d be grateful for anything supportive readers might do to help get the word out about it.

I’ll also be doing some traveling. Over the next few months I’ll be in Las Vegas, Nashville, Austin, Philadelphia (King of Prussia), Orlando, Eau Claire (Wisconsin), Dallas, Colorado Springs, Bloomington (Indiana University), Houston, Auburn (Alabama), and Phoenix; at most of these events I’ll be discussing the book, and at all of them I’ll have copies. Here’s my full schedule.

Never did I imagine that an issue I assumed would (unfortunately) remain a historical curiosity might actually be resuscitated. To my amazement, it’s being proposed all over the country, in the service of all sorts of good causes. I hope my book encourages more of it, provides supporters with useful intellectual ammunition, and explodes the idea that all we can do in the face of this regime is sit back and take it.