Skip to content

States Rights Civil War Essay Ideas

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.


Articles About States’ Rights Civil War From History Net Magazines

John C. Calhoun: He Started the Civil WarIf one person could be called the instigator of the Civil War, it was John C. Calhoun -- genius pragmatist, and racist.

One of the most enduring myths to emerge from the era of Abraham Lincoln is the notion that the South fought the Civil War not to defend slavery, but to uphold the rights of states against a tyrannical central government. This myth was extremely important to the white South’s resistance to post-war Reconstruction, particular the effort by northern Republicans to secure basic civil rights and liberties for newly freed slaves. This states’ rights doctrine took concrete form during Reconstruction in the enactment of black codes by Southern states that sharply limited the freedom of African Americans.

The doctrine of states’ rights had the backing of Lincoln’s successor President Andrew Johnson of Tennessee. Johnson opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 because it allegedly represented a “stride toward centralization and the concentration of all legislative power in the national government.” He also privately wrote, “This is a country for white men, and by God, as long as I am President, it shall be a government for white men.”

After the “redemption” of Southern states by white supremacists in the 1870s, states’ rights continued to serve as an effective shield against federal efforts to end segregation and discrimination against African Americans—known as the Jim Crow system in the South. Even after the rise of a liberal Democratic Party in the 1930s, that expanded the power of the federal government, states’ rights continued to serve as a means for protecting Jim Crow. In an unwritten compact between northern and southern Democrats, President Franklin Roosevelt and his allies let Jim Crow rule below the Mason-Dixon Line. In turn, white Southerners backed the New Deal and delivered their bloc votes to Democrats.

Under President Harry S. Truman in 1948, for the first time, Democrats broke this compact by embracing an ambitious civil rights program. Presidential adviser Clark Clifford told Truman not to worry about “difficulty with our Southern friends,” because “it takes a considerable number of southern States to equal the importance of such States as New York, Pennsylvania, and Illinois,” where the black vote loomed large. Georgia Senator Richard Russell, their tacit leader of Southern Democrats, warned against tampering with “States’ rights and white supremacy,” the basis of “Southern devotion to the Democratic Party.”  A “federal Gestapo,” he said, was poised to deploy “every power of the Federal Government…to destroy segregation and compel intermingling and miscegenation of the races in the South.”

After the Democratic convention, some Southern Democrats formed their own political party and nominated Governor Strom Thurmond of South Carolina for president. The dissidents named their new organization the “States’ Rights Party,” although to Thurmond’s chagrin the pressed dubbed it the “Dixiecrat” party. Thurmond campaigned on the issue of states’ rights, although he admitted that his real purpose was to defend “the racial integrity and purity of the White and Negro races.” Thurmond’s appeal did not extend beyond the South. He won 2.4 percent of the popular vote and electoral votes from four Deep South states. His campaign foreshadowed the later decline of the Democratic Party in the south. Southern Democrats continued to invoke states’ rights in their opposition to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that outlawed legal segregation in the South and to the civil rights laws of the 1960s.

The states’ rights doctrine has no foundation in the era of Abraham Lincoln. The south seceded from the Union and fought the Civil War, not to uphold states’ rights, but to defend slavery. The South seceded before the new Republican government of Abraham Lincoln took any action to restrict slavery in the south or any other institutions of Southern states. Secession began well before Lincoln took the oath of office, which took place on March 4, following the election year, not January 20. On December 20, 1860, delegates attending a secession convention in South Carolina voted for the “dissolution of the union between the state of South Carolina and other states, under the name of the United States of America.”

By February of 1861, six other Southern states had followed South Carolina to secession. So agitated were the passions in the South that by inauguration eve Lincoln’s advisers had the carriage bearing the new president steal into the Capital at midnight. Lincoln’s declaration that he would not interfere with the rights of states to manage their race relations had no impact in the South. However, in his July 1861 message to Congress Lincoln decisively rejected the idea that the Union was a dissolvable compact of states. “A power to destroy the government itself,” is not a power reserved to the states.

The ultimate refutation of the notion that the Confederacy stood for states’ rights is found in the Constitution of the so-called Confederate States of America. This Constitution did not reserve for the states the power to accept or reject slavery, supposedly the basis of secession and war. Rather, in effect, it prohibited its states from interfering with slavery. For states within the Confederacy, the Constitution declared, “citizens of each State shall be entitled to all the privileges and immunities of citizens in the several States; and shall have the right of transit and sojourn in any State of this Confederacy, with their slaves and other property; and the right of property in said slaves shall not be thereby impaired.” (Emphasis added.) The Constitution also mandated that, “No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed.“ In addition, the Constitution included a Supremacy Clause modeled on the U.S. Constitution declaring that laws and treaties of the Confederate government “shall be the supreme law of the land.”

It is long past time to put to rest the myth that secession and the Civil War turned on states’ rights and to recognize the contradiction at the heart of the Confederacy’s approach to this issue. Within a federal system, certain powers and responsibilities are delegated to the states, but not at the expense of people’s rights and liberties. We would do well to heed the words of President Lincoln in an 1862 speech, “May our children and our children’s children to a thousand generations, continue to enjoy the benefits conferred upon us by a united country, and have cause yet to rejoice under those glorious institutions bequeathed us by Washington and his compeers.

*                   *                    *

Allan J. Lichtman is a professor of history at American University in Washington, D.C. His books include Prejudice and the Old Politics: The Presidential Election of 1928 and The Keys to the White House. His latest book is White Protestant Nation: The Rise of the American Conservative Movement.