Interposition and the Heresy of Nullification: James Madison and the Exercise of Sovereign Constitutional Powers

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Abstract: The seemingly unstoppable growth of the federal government has led to a revival, in some circles, of the discredited notion of nullification as a legitimate constitutional mechanism for states to reassert their sovereign powers. Proponents of this doctrine invoke the authority of James Madison to defend the claim that the Constitution empowers states to nullify laws passed by Congress. In this essay, Christian Fritz explains why Madison emphatically rejected the attempt by a single state to nullify national laws. Instead, Madison embraced something very different. The practice of interposition—public opinion, protests, petitions, and legitimate actions of state legislatures—focused attention on whether the government was acting in conformity with the Constitution. Recovering Madison’s understanding of interposition offers a useful corrective to the mischaracterization of his views and makes clear that he rejected any constitutional basis for nullification.

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