States’ Rights & The Civil War
Facts, information and articles about States Rights, one of the causes of the civil war
States’ Rights summary: States’ rights is a term used to describe the ongoing struggle over political power in the United States between the federal government and individual states as broadly outlined in the Tenth Amendment and whether the USA is a single entity or an amalgamation of independent nations. In modern times the term States Rights has also come to symbolize the opposition of some states to federal mandated laws against racial segregation and discrimination.
States’ Rights in the Colonies
When the original 13 independent colonies announced their independence from Great Britain in 1776 they regarded themselves as sovereign (independent) states. The demands of the Revolutionary War forced the states to recognize a need for a central government. The Continental Congress established Articles of Confederation, an agreement that created a weak central government. In the years following the Revolutionary War, individual states created their own laws, attempted to make foreign treaties on their own, etc. Europe saw the young United States as weak. The polyglot of laws, danger from Europe and the national government’s ineffectual response to Shay’s Rebellion in Massachusetts convinced many Americans that a “more perfect union” was needed. The United States Constitution, which the country has operated under since 1789, strengthened the central government in many ways, including taxation, the ability to call up state militias for national service, etc. It also established certain individual rights throughout the nation, including freedoms of speech, assembly, religion, etc. The Ninth Amendment stated, “The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people,” and 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.” These two amendments assured the states of continued autonomy in handling most of their internal affairs.
Slavery and Tariffs
Disputes arose at times. During the War of 1812 New England states met to discuss seceding from the Union because the war was interfering with their trade with Britain. In 1832 national tariffs that benefited Northern manufacturers while hurting the economy of Southern states led to the Nullification Crisis, in which South Carolina declared the tariffs null and void. The state threatened to leave the Union, but a compromise was reached that temporarily defused the crisis.
What brought the question of states’ rights to the fore was changing attitudes toward slavery. Northern abolitionists began vehemently assailing the institution and the states that continued to practice it, nearly all of them below the Mason-Dixon Line. Some Northerners aided the escape of runaway slaves (a violation of the Constitution’s provisiions that made a fugitive from one state a fugitive in every state) and mobs sometimes assaulted slave owners and slave hunters seeking runaways. (Slavery originally existed in all states, and the writers of the Constitution avoided addressing the matter of perpetuating or ending slavery in order to obtain ratification from all states.) When victory in the Mexican War (1846-48) resulted in the US expanding its territory all the way to the Pacific Ocean, the question of whether or not to permit slavery in the new territories. The debate over slavery intensified, creating a widening gap between slaveholding and nonslaveholding states. When a “purely regional party,” the new Republican Party swept the 1859 elections in the North and the party’s candidate Abraham Lincoln, an avowed foe of the expansion of slavery, Southern states seceded from the Union. See Causes of the Civil War on HistoryNet.
After the Civil War
It has been said that before the Civil War the country was referred to as “The United States are … ” but after the war the description became “The United States is … ” Yet questions of federal vs. state power continued to crop up. Virginia sued to reclaim certain of its western counties that had become part of the breakaway state of West Virginia during the war but was rebuffed by the Supreme Court, and Reconstruction raised many federal vs. states questions.
In the 1925 Gitlow vs. New York decision, the Court held that the Bill of Rights applies to the states as well as to the federal government, in keeping with the 14th Amendment. In 1948, a group of Southern delegates walked out of the Democratic National Convention and formed the States Rights Party (nicknamed the Dixiecrats). The reason for the party split was that the traditionally conservative Democratic Party was becoming more liberal and had embraced a platform for the coming election that called for federal anti-lynching legislation, abolishing poll taxes in federal elections (which had been used to keep African Americans from voting), desegregation of America’s military services, and creation of a permanent Fair Employment Practices Committee to prevent racial discrimination. The States Rights Party, with South Carolina’s senator Strom Thurmond as its presidential candidate and Mississippi governor Fielding L. Wright as his vice-president. They received 1.2 million votes and 39 electoral delegates, nowhere near enough to carry the election, but “States’ Rights” became the rallying cry for opposition to federally mandated desegregation and anti-discrimination policies in the following decades. The landmark Supreme Court decision in 1952’s Brown vs. Board of Education that found racially “separate but equal” policies unconstitutionally denied black children the same educational opportunities as white children, leading to widespread anti-desegregation States’ Rights demonstrations in conservative states.
In recent years States’ Rights philosophies have been adopted by many who oppose the growth of the federal government and its recognition of social changes such as legalized abortion. The Affordable Care Act, widely known as Obamacare, has generated intense debates over the ability of the federal government to force states to adopt a nationwide healthcare law.