Nullification: A Lesson from Massachusetts History

Posted: November 26th, 2010 by Militant Libertarian

by Roger Prather, 10AC

Nullification – the principle that, under the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution, the states and their people have the right and responsibility to declare unconstitutional federal laws of no force within their jurisdiction – has a significant place in Massachusetts history. As a hot spot of colonial resistance leading up to the War for Independence, Massachusetts emerged as a leader in pushing back against unlawful and immoral acts of Parliament. The place Massachusetts holds in the fight for liberty and local sovereignty lends strong philosophical support to the Tenth Amendment movement and provides a historical backdrop for its emergence as a leader in constitutional integrity.

The acts of Parliament and the Crown of Great Britain that led to the Revolution were numerous and stretch far into history. But the beginning of the tensions that led to war occurred in 1764 with the passage of the Sugar Act, which restricted a free and open market in the North American colonies. It was the first act of Parliament written specifically to raise colonial money – thus generating the well known slogan, “taxation without representation.”

The Sugar Act was followed by other laws that restricted the personal and economic liberties of American colonists: the Currency Act, the Quartering Act, the Stamp Act, the Declaratory Act, and the Townshend Acts. With each new piece of legislation, discontent with the English government grew into open, organized opposition that focused on the right and ability of a people to govern itself locally. And Massachusetts was at the forefront of this opposition.

In January, 1773 (the Boston Tea Party would take place in December that year), the loyalist, colonial governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson, gave a speech to the state assembly to address growing opposition to the British government. In his speech, Hutchinson spoke directly to the citizens of Massachusetts who were, in effect, attempting to nullify Parliament through acts of local and individual sovereignty:

“The authority of the Parliament of Great Britain to make and establish laws for the inhabitants of this province has been, by many, denied. What was, at first, whispered with caution, was soon after openly asserted in print and, of late, a number of inhabitants in several of the principal towns in the province, have assembled together in their respective towns and, having assumed the name of legal Town Meetings, have passed resolves which they have ordered to be placed upon their town records, and caused to be printed & published in pamphlets and newspapers … some of them deny the supreme authority of Parliament.” [emphasis added]

So as far back as the early 1770s, the people of Massachusetts have asserted their rights of local sovereignty. The philosophical ideas that would give rise to the protections granted in the Tenth Amendment were present before the Revolutionary War even started. In fact, the same principles enshrined in the Tenth Amendment are the same principles that caused the people of Massachusetts and the other twelve colonies to resist Parliament through the acts of locally elected legislatures. The people of Massachusetts recognized in 1773 that a a geographically distant government, concerned with its own welfare and motives, had no place in managing their local affairs.

It was a sentiment that would be carried up to and throughout the war. The formation of the Continental Congress and individual states’ efforts to form their own legislatures with the power to make policy in opposition to that of the Parliament reflects the deep rooted American belief in self-governance – a belief that, despite efforts to suppress and overcome it, will not go away easily. The formation of a new Tenth Amendment Center chapter in Massachusetts is evidence to that fact.

Today, the people of Massachusetts face a similar situation. A distant, centralized government, concerned only with its own self interest, sits now in Washington, rather than London. This distant government has claimed supreme authority over nearly every aspect of public life and continually contrives new methods of taxation to fund its growing size and intrusiveness. The nullification pioneers of 1773 understood well that the size of government is inversely proportional to individual liberty. In our current era of bailouts, welfare-statism, and perpetual war, it’s hard to believe that individual liberty stands a chance.

But it does stand a chance as long as we recognize that we are the chance. We, the people of Massachusetts, have the power and authority to keep the federal government in check, if we take a lesson from our colonial history. Under the authority of the Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, we have the authority to assemble and declare, as a sovereign state, that Massachusetts is not subject to the supreme authority of the United States government when it ignores the Constitution and its enumerated powers.

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