Supremacy clause, Supreme Court, States

Nullification: Smacking Down Those Who Smack Down The Constitution

By —— Bio and Archives April 17, 2011

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In response to a recent article in the National Review by Allen C. Guelzo, a nullification denier and history professor at Gettysburg College, and two responding letters to the Editor,1 one “Celticreeler” posted an astute rebuttal you can read here.

The issue in the National Review article and letters is this: Guelzo denies that States have any right to nullify unconstitutional laws made by Congress. He looks at Art. VI, clause 2, U.S. Constitution (the “supremacy clause”), which reads,

This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land… [emphasis added]

and concludes that any law made by Congress is the “supreme” law of the land; and everyone must obey, unless & until five (5) judges on the supreme Court say they don’t have to. He claims that only judges have authority to nullify unconstitutional acts of Congress.

In her rebuttal, Celticreeler correctly points out that the phrase, “in Pursuance thereof”, “limit[s] the federal government’s supremacy to laws that were made pursuant to the Constitution…”

She also reprints Guelzo’s reply to her letter to the Editor. And what he says in his reply is so at odds with the words of our Framers, that I am compelled to respond.

We will look at four Founding Principles which Guelzo rejects and reverses.

1. What does “In Pursuance thereof” Really Mean?

Guelzo says in his reply,

“In pursuance thereof ” was intended only to recognize that, at the time of the Constitution’s adoption, no body of legislation had yet been made under the Constitution…

What? He presents no proof - though he does throw in the factoid that “The supremacy clause was written by an anti-Federalist, Luther Martin, whom we might presume to have entertained a few anxieties about an overmighty federal government”.

Actually, Luther Martin said the clause he proposed was “very materially different from the [supremacy clause] clause adopted by the Constitution” 2; but I will not quibble.

In any event, it is The Federalist Papers which are authoritative as to the genuine meaning of the Constitution 3 - not speeches of delegates to the Federal Convention (thou they can shed light). And this is what The Federalist Papers say about Art. VI, clause 2, and “in Pursuance thereof”:

In Federalist No. 33 (6th para), Alexander Hamilton says:

...But it will not follow ...that acts of the large society [the federal government] which are NOT PURSUANT to its constitutional powers, but which are invasions of the residuary authorities of the smaller societies [the States], will become the supreme law of the land. These will be merely acts of usurpation, and will deserve to be treated as such… [T]he clause which declares the supremacy of the laws of the Union ... EXPRESSLY confines this supremacy to laws made PURSUANT TO THE CONSTITUTION ... [capitals are Hamilton’s]

In the next para, Hamilton says that a law made by Congress which is not authorized by the Constitution,

...would not be the supreme law of the land, but a usurpation of power not granted by the Constitution…. [boldface mine]

In Federalist No. 27 (last para), Hamilton says:

...the laws of the Confederacy [the federal government], as to the ENUMERATED and LEGITIMATE objects of its jurisdiction, will become the SUPREME LAW of the land; to the observance of which all officers, legislative, executive, and judicial, in each State, will be bound by the sanctity of an oath. Thus the legislatures, courts, and magistrates, of the respective members [the States], will be incorporated into the operations of the national government AS FAR AS ITS JUST AND CONSTITUTIONAL AUTHORITY EXTENDS… [capitals are Hamilton’s; other emphasis mine]

And in Federalist No. 78 (10th para), Hamilton says:

...every act of a delegated authority, contrary to the tenor of the commission under which it is exercised, is void. No legislative act, therefore, contrary to the Constitution, can be valid. To deny this, would be to affirm, that the deputy is greater than his principal; that the servant is above his master; that the representatives of the people are superior to the people themselves; that men acting by virtue of powers, may do not only what their powers do not authorize, but what they forbid. [emphasis mine]

Do you see? Federalist No. 33, 27, & 78 are clear: Acts of Congress which are not authorized by the Constitution are “void” - they are “mere usurpations and deserve to be treated as such”. They are not made “in Pursuance” of the Constitution and have “supremacy” over nothing. 4

2. Who is Supposed to Look to the U.S. Constitution for Permission: The Federal Government, the Member States, or the People?

Guelzo says (in his reply):

If the Founders had wanted to grant nullifying power-to the states or any other body-they would have had more than sufficient opportunity to include it in the Constitution. [boldface added]

Guelzo thus asserts that the States [i.e., the Members of the Federation] don’t have any powers unless “the Founders” said they could have them and wrote it into The Constitution! He demands that the States look to the Constitution to see what they are permitted to do! According to Guelzo, if the Constitution doesn’t give States permission, they can’t do it.

Guelzo has it backwards - our Founding Documents refute his words. The second paragraph of The Declaration of Independence says that Rights come from God and to secure these rights, 5

Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, -

So, governments have only those powers “the governed” permit them to have! In our Constitution, WE THE PEOPLE, acting through our Representative States, decided what powers WE would delegate to the federal government.

Accordingly, WE THE PEOPLE created the federal government when WE, acting through our States, ordained & established the Constitution for the United States of America. In the Constitution, WE itemized the powers WE granted to each branch of the federal government. No Branch of the federal government may lawfully do ANYTHING unless WE authorized it in the Constitution.WE are the Creators; those in the federal government, are merely our ‚Äúcreatures‚Äù.In Federalist No. 33 (5th para), Hamilton calls the federal government our “creature”; and points out that it is up to THE PEOPLE to smackdown the federal government when it “overpass[es] the just bounds of its authority and make[s] a tyrannical use of its powers”. 6

In Federalist No. 32 (2nd para), Hamilton says,

...the State governments ...clearly retain all the rights of sovereignty which they before had, and which were not… EXCLUSIVELY delegated to the United States. This exclusive delegation ...of State sovereignty would only exist in three cases… [caps are Hamilton’s, boldface mine]

The Tenth Amendment says:

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. [emphasis added]

Do you see? Guelzo reverses & perverts the whole point of Our Declaration of Independence, Our Revolution, & Our Constitution.

It is each of the three branches of the federal government (Legislative, Executive, & Judicial) who must look to the Constitution to see what powers WE THE PEOPLE, acting through our States, allowed them to have. All other powers are reserved to The States or The People.

3. Who Has Authority to Nullify Unconstitutional Laws Made by Congress?

Guelzo says, respecting the power to nullify a law made by Congress, 

...That determination lies in the hands of the courts, under the principle of judicial review laid down in McCulloch v. Maryland in 1819…

McCulloch v. Maryland? In McCulloch v. Maryland, the supreme Court decided [wrongly] that Congress has power under various of the enumerated powers listed at Art. I, Sec. 8, clauses 1-16, and the “necessary & proper clause” (Art. I, Sec. 8, last clause) to incorporate a national bank. That case is not about “judicial review”.

Perhaps he meant Marbury v. Madison (1803). Even so, Hamilton had already “laid down” the principle of judicial review in Federalist No. 78 (8th -15th paras) some 15 years earlier.

And in the Constitution, WE did not delegate EXCLUSIVE authority to federal judges to nullify unconstitutional laws! Furthermore, the Oaths of Office at Art. VI, cl. 3 & Art. II, Sec. 1, last clause, impose on all who take them an obligation to uphold the Constitution against usurpations by the federal government. Thus, nullification is both a Power retained by the States & The People as well as an Obligation imposed by Oath.

And REMEMBER! Our Rights pre-date & pre-exist The Constitution. Thus, nullification of usurped powers is a natural right - it is the remedy against insupportable oppression by the federal government. 7

4. In Our American System, WE Do Not Take Oaths To Obey Persons, Institutions, Or Judges.

I have proved elsewhere that nullification of unconstitutional laws, executive orders, supreme Court opinions and treaties is required by the Constitutional Oaths of office. That Oath requires that all who take it swear or affirm that they will support the Constitution. In our American system, we do not take Oaths to obey persons, institutions, or courts.  Here are two papers explaining the legal & moral imperatives of nullification: Why States Must Nullify Unconstitutional Acts of Congress: Instructions from Hamilton, Madison, & Jefferson  and The Oath Of Office: The Check On Usurpations By Congress, The Executive Branch, & Federal Judges 8

Guelzo’s Statist Vision.

Guelzo’s vision is this: Every law made by Congress [the Legislative Branch of the federal government] is “supreme”; and the Member States & WE THE PEOPLE must obey, unless & until five (5) judges on the supreme Court [the Judicial Branch of the federal government] say the law is unconstitutional. In other words, Guelzo holds that only the federal government may question the federal government.

His words are poison. Under his vision, the federal government created by the Constitution is the exclusive and final judge of the extent of the powers delegated to it; and the opinion of five judges, not the Constitution, is the sole measure of its powers. It is an evil ideology. And, as I have proved herein, it is antithetical to our Founding Documents and Principles. 9 PH


1 Celticreeler states that Guelzo’s original article appeared in the February 21, 2011 issue of National Review. In response, she submitted a letter to the Editor, and Guelzo replied. Celticreeler reprints Guelzo’s reply in her linked rebuttal. Guelzo’s original article is available to subscribers only.

2 You can read Martin’s actual comments (March 19, 1788) here: Luther Martin’s Reply to the Landholder.1 

3 The Federalist Papers were written during 1787-88 to explain the proposed Constitution to The People and to induce them (through their States) to ratify it. For this reason, The Federalist Papers are authoritative on the genuine meaning of the Constitution. And at a meeting attended by Thomas Jefferson & James Madison of the Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia on March 4, 1825, the following resolution selecting texts for the Law school was passed:

...on the distinctive principles of the government of our own state, and of that of the US. the best guides are to be found in 1. the Declaration of Independance, as the fundamental act of union of these states. 2. the book known by the title of `The Federalist’, being an authority to which appeal is habitually made by all, and rarely declined or denied by any as evidence of the general opinion of those who framed, and of those who accepted the Constitution of the US. on questions as to it’s genuine meaning.... (page 83) [emphasis added]

Someone! Show Professor Guelzo the on-line edition of The Federalist Papers so he can learn the genuine meaning of the Constitution! Salvage the minds of the young people who the administration of Gettysburg College places in Guelzo’s care.

4 Using The Federalist Papers as Proof, I explain the “Supremacy Clause” here: The Arizona Illegal Alien Law & The Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution: Exclusive & Concurrent JurisdictionExplained. Guelzo mentions “preemption” [it does sounds “grand, doesn’t it?]; but in this paper I explain the interplay between constitutional federal & Reserved State powers.

5 It is impossible to understand The Constitution without acknowledging the Principle set forth in Our Declaration of Independence that that our Rights are granted to us by The Creator God; they thus pre-exist & pre-date The Constitution, and are unalienable by man. WE do not look to The Constitution for our Rights! I explain our Rights here.

6 Here are Hamilton’s actual words:

If the federal government should overpass the just bounds of its authority and make a tyrannical use of its powers, the people, whose creature it is, must appeal to the standard they have formed, and take such measures to redress the injury done to the Constitution as the exigency may suggest and prudence justify. (Federalist No. 33, 5th para) [emphasis added]

7 In his writings on Nullification, our beloved Thomas Jefferson distinguishes between [mere] “abuses of delegated powers” and the assumption of powers “which have not been delegated”: cases of an abuse of the delegated powers, the members of the General [federal] Government, being chosen by the people, a change by the people would be the constitutional remedy; but, where powers are assumed which have not been delegated, a nullification of the act is the rightful remedy: that every State has a natural right in cases not within the compact, (casus non foederis,) to nullify of their own authority all assumptions of power by others within their limits: that without this right, they would be under the dominion, absolute and unlimited, of whosoever might exercise this right of judgment for them:.. [boldface added]

I.e., if Congress merely abuses a delegated power [e.g., makes silly bankruptcy laws (Art. I, Sec. 8, cl. 4)], then the proper remedy is to vote the Representatives out of office and replace them with sensible ones who will repeal the silly bankruptcy laws.

But if Congress assumes a power which has not been delegated to it - e.g., control of the Peoples’ medical care - then each State has a natural right to nullify it within their own borders. It is outside the compact the States made with each other - the States and the People never gave their “creature” (the federal government) power over their medical care! Without Nullification, the States and the People would be under the absolute & unlimited control of the federal government

8 Remember! We expect the lowest-ranking soldier to refuse to obey an unlawful order even when given by a commissioned officer. See “A Duty to Disobey: The Forgotten Lessons of My Lai”, by military lawyer Robert S. Rivkin. And do not forget the Nuremberg trials - defendants claimed they were “just following orders”. The Court properly rejected that defense.

Do we ask less of ourselves and our State & federal officials than we do of 18 year-old soldiers when we are confronted with unconstitutional acts of the federal government? The three branches of the federal government have connived against us - THE PEOPLE. So smack them down! Can we live up to our Framers’ expectations as set forth throughout The Federalist Papers? See also, What Should States Do When the Federal Government UsurpsPower? for advice from James Madison.

9 Does Professor Guelzo understands the poisonous import of his words? Or did he uncritically accept, and does he unthinkingly recite, what he has been told? What he says is the prevailing dogma of our time - most lawyers believe it because it is what they were told in law school. Theirs’ are minds which have never been trained to think, and they are ignorant of the concept of “objective meaning”. I address the problem of inability to think and our moral & intellectual corruption here: How Progressive Education & Bad Philosophy Corrupted The People & Undermined The U.S. Constitution PH.

Publius Huldah -- Bio and Archives | Click to view Comments

Publius Huldah is a retired lawyer who lives in Tennessee USA.  She writes on the U.S. Constitution and posts her papers at  Before getting a law degree, she got a degree in philosophy where she specialized in political philosophy and epistemology (theories of knowledge). 

Using primarily The Federalist Papers, which were written during 1787-1788 by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison & John Jay, in order to explain the proposed Constitution to the American People and induce them to ratify it, Publius Huldah explains the true & original meaning of the U.S. Constitution.  She also shows how modern day judges on the U.S. federal courts have completely abandoned the U.S. Constitution and have substituted their own personal views and opinions for The Constitution.

Publius can be reached at: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

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