Nullification collides with more than just the letter of the Constitution. It also assaults its spirit. The guarantee that each state will give “Full Faith and Credit . . . to the public Acts, Records, and judicial Proceedings of every other State” is undermined whenever a state nullifies a law and other states refuse to recognize the nullification. And it collides with the rights and obligations of U.S. citizens, since the state nullification of an unwanted federal law ends up restraining a U.S. citizen living in that state from following that law. “The Citizens of each State shall be entitled to all Privileges and Immunities of Citizens in the several States,” says the Constitution — but not in a state where the local legislature has nullified certain of them that it deems objectionable. What the nullifying state is doing is, in effect, canceling the U.S. citizenship of the people living within its borders by asserting supreme jurisdiction over them.
One reply to this argument is that it merely represents the “nationalist theory” of the Constitution (according to which the document creates a single, unified nation, and the states are subordinate to federal authority), as opposed to the “compact theory” (according to which the Constitution creates a league or alliance of independent sovereignties). But it’s not easy to say what a compact theory means in the real world, much less whether it allows nullification. Theories according to which the Constitution is a “compact” also fly in the face of what the Framers thought they were doing. James Madison, both during and after the Constitutional Convention, believed that the national government ought to have the authority “to negative all laws passed by the several States, contravening in the opinion of the National Legislature the articles of Union . . . and to call forth the force of the Union against any member of the Union failing to fulfill its duty under the articles thereof.” And George Washington was so intent on having the federal government be the government of all the people, and not just of states, that any other result would cause him “deep regret at having any agency in this business.” Nor it is really persuasive to claim that the Tenth Amendment’s reservation to the states of powers “not delegated to the United States by the Constitution” was intended to include the power to nullify. It would be strange that the Framers spelled out an amending process but not a process for nullification.
Nullification is the spirit of anarchy. It sees real enough dangers in the non-enforcement of law, or even perverse lawmaking, but retaliates by setting aside the entire mechanism of lawmaking. It is impatient with the slow, prudent working of the checks and balances in the federal system, and announces (in the words of Donald Livingston of the Abbeville Institute) that “Congress cannot restrain itself, and elections don’t work.” At its worst, nullification places the immediate will of a minority over the process of majority rule. It appeals to special interests and European-style proportional-representation schemes, in which factions and splinter groups are the tail that wags the nullifying dog. Have nullification if you like, but understand that it is as destructive of the Constitution and the rule of law as the legislation it takes aim at, and rejected by our history as well.
Perhaps the reappearance of nullification arguments is simply a measure of how resolutely many Americans are balking at the Obama agenda. Much of nullification’s appeal seems to lie in its promise to strike down the federal dragon with a single mighty thunderbolt. But anger can induce tunnel vision. Hayek wrote that top-lofty state planners always plan for the result they would most like to see, not the one that is most likely to happen. The same is true of those who support nullification. Their anger may be justified, but it does not justify the use of a weapon that would blow the whole house up. “Should the States reject this excellent Constitution,” Washington warned in 1787, as he added his signature to it, “the probability is that an opportunity will never be offered to cancel another in peace; the next will be drawn in blood.”
– Mr. Guelzo is Henry R. Luce III Professor of the Civil War era, director of Civil War–era studies, and associate director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College.