Nullification: The Jeffersonian Brake on Government
Thinkers in the classical-liberal tradition, to the extent that they support a coercive state at all, speak routinely of the importance of keeping government strictly limited. To that end, the United States has a written Constitution, which enumerates the relatively brief list of tasks entrusted to the federal government and whose Tenth Amendment makes clear that any power not granted to the federal government resides in the states, the authors of the federal compact.
That is all well and good, but how does a theoretically limited government remain so? Some have argued that it is impossible to restrain a government over time. The framers of the Constitution, for their part, were well aware of the tendency for power to concentrate and expand. Thomas Jefferson spoke of the calamity that would result if all power were vested in the federal government.
To be sure, the Constitution was something of a barrier to such tendencies, but any constitution is, after all, only a piece of paper and cannot enforce itself. Checks and balances among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches, a prominent feature of the Constitution, also provide little guarantee of limited government, since these three federal branches can simply unite against the independence of the states and the reserved rights of the people. That is precisely what Jefferson warned William Branch Giles was already happening in 1825: “[I]t is but too evident, that the three ruling branches of [the Federal government] are in combination to strip their colleagues, the State authorities, of the powers reserved by them, and to exercise themselves all functions foreign and domestic.”