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States' Rights


A doctrine and strategy in which the rights of the individual states are protected by the U.S. Constitution from interference by the federal government.

The history of the United States has been marked by conflict over the proper allocation of power between the states and the federal government. The federal system of government established by the U.S. Constitution recognized the sovereignty of both the state governments and the federal government by giving them mutually exclusive powers as well as concurrent powers. In the first half of the nineteenth century, arguments over states' rights arose in the context of slavery. From the 1870s to the 1930s, economic issues shaped the debate. In the 1950s racial segregation and the civil rights movement renewed the issue of state power. By the 1970s economic and political conservatives had begun to call for a reduction in the power and control of the federal government and for the redistribution of responsibilities to the states.

At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, delegates represented state governments that had become autonomous centers of power. The Constitution avoided a precise definition of the locus of sovereignty, leaving people to infer that the new charter created a divided structure in which powers were allocated between the central government and the states in such a way that each would be supreme in certain areas.

Nevertheless, defenders of states' rights were concerned that a powerful, consolidated national government would run roughshod over the states. With ratification of the Constitution in doubt, the Framers promised to add protection for the states. Accordingly, the tenth amendment was added to the Constitution as part of the bill of rights. The amendment stipulates that "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." This amendment became the constitutional foundation for those who wish to promote the rights and powers of the states vis-à-vis the federal government.

In the early years of the Republic, states' rights were vigorously protected. An early argument involved whether or not states were subject to the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court and the federal government. In chisholm v. georgia, 2 U.S. (2 Dall.) 419, 1 L. Ed. 440 (1793), a South Carolina businessman sued the state of Georgia in order to collect for payment of supplies. The state of Georgia maintained that it was a sovereign body, and so could not be sued since it was not subject to the authority of federal courts. The Supreme Court dismissed this argument and ruled that the conduct of the states was subject to judicial review. In response, states' rights advocates pushed for passage of the eleventh amendment, which limits the rights of persons to sue a state in federal court.

In 1798, thomas jefferson and james madison proposed the virginia and kentucky resolves to clarify the role of states in checking the powers of the federal government. The resolutions were in response to passage of the alien enemies and sedition acts of 1798 (1 Stat. 570, 1 Stat. 596), which restricted a number of personal liberties. In proposing the Virginia and Kentucky Resolves of 1798, Jefferson argued that the "sovereign and independent states" had the right to "interpose" themselves between their citizens and improper national legislative actions and to "nullify" acts of Congress they deemed unconstitutional. The resolutions started the seed of the doctrines of nullification and interposition, later employed by New England states during the war of 1812, and by South Carolina in opposing federal tariff legislation in 1832.

From the early 1800s until the end of the Civil War in 1865, states' rights played a major role in the U.S. political process. The doctrine was most fully articulated in the writings of South Carolina statesman and political theorist john c. calhoun. Calhoun contended that if acts of the federal government ran contrary to state or local interests, then states had the right to nullify said acts. Calhoun further proposed that states had the right to dissolve their contractual relationship with the federal government rather than submit to policies they saw as destructive to their local self-interests. Followers of Calhoun linked states' rights to slavery, and thus, protecting slavery became the equivalent of protecting regional Southern interests. In 1860, seven Southern states seceded from the Union to form the Confederate States of America. The constitution of the Confederacy began, "We, the people of the Confederate States, each State acting in its own sovereign and independent character …."

Northern leaders were also prepared to manipulate the concept of states' rights. As early as the 1820s, Northern legislatures enacted personal liberty laws as devices to block the enforcement of the federal fugitive slave law. Such laws were struck down by the Supreme Court in prigg v. pennsylvania, 41 U.S. (16 Pet.) 539, 10 L. Ed. 1060 (1842). However, when Congress enacted the more stringent fugitive slave act of 1850, Northerners responded by again creating personal liberty laws in general defiance of federal fugitive slave policy.

The defeat of the South in the Civil War ended the dispute, and Congress enacted the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, in part, to prevent states from denying certain basic rights to U.S. citizens. Although the Supreme Court substantially restricted the power of these amendments during the late nineteenth century, it did so indirectly, relying on states' rights arguments to justify its actions. The judicial philosophy of the times was also marked by laissez-faire capitalism. Thus, the Court would invoke the Tenth Amendment to strike down federal laws that were characterized as hostile to state interests and then use the fourteenth amendment to strike down state legislation that sought to regulate business, labor, and the economy.

This trend continued into the twentieth century. Until the 1930s, the Court frequently used the Tenth Amendment as a device for striking down federal measures, from child labor laws to major pieces of President franklin d. roosevelt's new deal legislation. Hundreds of state regulatory statutes were also overturned. Only when the states sought to restrict unions or control dissenters did the Court sustain these efforts.

By the late 1930s, however, New Deal policies had dramatically increased the size and power of the federal government. Proponents of states' rights argued against extensive use of the commerce clause, which gave the federal government the power to regulate interstate commerce, and the federal government's power to tax for the general welfare. Given the desperate economic situation, such arguments fell on deaf ears. By the end of world war ii, centralized authority rested with the federal government.

States' rights were revived in the late 1940s over the matter of race. In the 1948 election, Democrat harry s. truman pushed for a more aggressive civil rights policy. Southern opponents, known as the "Dixiecrats," bolted the democratic party and ran their own candidate, J. strom thurmond. Their "states' rights" platform called for continued racial segregation and denounced proposals for national action on behalf of civil rights.

Desegregation efforts of the 1950s and 1960s, including the Supreme Court's decision in brown v. board of education of topeka, kansas, 347 U.S. 483, 74 S. Ct. 686, 98 L. Ed. 873 (1954), which ruled that racially segregated public schools were unconstitutional, also met with Southern resistance. Segregationists again argued for state sovereignty, and developed programs of massive resistance to racial integration in public education, public facilities, housing, and access to jobs.

Beginning in the 1960s, other states' rights proponents started stressing the need for local control of government. One reason was the introduction of federal welfare and subsidy programs. The concern was that along with federal money would come federal control.

By the end of the twentieth century, a number of efforts were being made to curtail the broad power of the federal government. For example, in National League of Cities v. Usery, 426 U.S. 833, 96 S. Ct. 2465, 49 L. Ed. 2d 245 (1976), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Congress had exceeded its power to regulate interstate commerce when it extended federal minimum wage and overtime standards to state and local governments. Determination of state government employees' wages and hours is one of the "attributes of sovereignty attaching to every state government," attributes that "may not be impaired by Congress." Less than ten years later, however, the Court overruled National League in Garcia v. San Antonio Metropolitan Transit Authority, 469 U.S. 528, 105 S. Ct. 1005, 83 L. Ed. 2d 1016 (1985). Nevertheless, the 5–4 majority in Garcia and the Court's difficulty in articulating a coherent Tenth Amendment jurisprudence have left this area of states' rights muddled.

The 1980s saw a major shift in government policy. President ronald reagan agreed with the public that the federal government was becoming too involved in state government affairs. As a result, a major focus of his administration was to reduce the size and power of the federal government. States were given more authority to experiment with policy initiatives, especially social programs, which had previously been directed from Washington. Subsequent administrations followed suit. In the early 2000s, however, political analysts commented that a new trend was afoot: both Republicans and Democrats were pushing for federal laws that would preempt state laws, especially state laws that attempted to regulate financial corporations and other types of business.

further readings

Drake, Frederick D., and Lynn R. Nelson. 1999. States' Rights and American Federalism: A Documentary History. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.

Knowles, Robert. 2003. "The Balance of Forces and the Empire of Liberty: States' Rights and the Louisiana Purchase." Iowa Law Review 88 (January).

Mason, Alpheus Thomas. 1972. The States Rights Debate: Antifederalism and the Constitution. 2d ed. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

McDonald, Forrest. 2000. States' Rights and the Union: Imperium in Imperio, 1776–1876. Lawrence: Univ. Press of Kansas.

Richey, Warren. 2002. "Terror Could Tilt High Court on States' Rights." Christian Science Monitor (February 11).

Sample, James J. 2003. "The Sentences that Bind." Columbia Law Review 103 (May).


Federalism; Fifteenth Amendment; Fourteenth Amendment; Kentucky Resolutions.

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states' rights

states' rights, in U.S. history, doctrine based on the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution, which states, "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." The term embraces both the doctrine of absolute state sovereignty that was espoused by John C. Calhoun and that of the so-called strict constructionist interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, which reserves to the state governments all powers not specifically granted by that document to the federal government. A states' rights controversy is probably inherent in the federal structure of the United States government.

In the Early Days of the Union

Immediately after the adoption of the Constitution, controversy arose as to how to interpret the enumerated powers granted the federal government. Alexander Hamilton and the Federalist party favored a broad interpretation, which meant a strong central government deriving its authority from implied as well as express powers contained in the Constitution. Thomas Jefferson and his followers, "strict constructionists," insisted that all powers not specifically granted the federal government be reserved to the states. The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, written by Jefferson and James Madison, represent the first formulation of the doctrine of states' rights. The second important manifestation of states' rights occurred in New England among the Federalists in opposition, curiously enough, to Jefferson. His party, while in power, brought about (1803) the Louisiana Purchase, passed the Embargo Act of 1807 and other nonintercourse measures, and later declared war against Great Britain. All of these actions met with resistance in New England, and the War of 1812 finally led to the calling of the Hartford Convention of 1814–15, in which New Englanders officially expressed their hostility to the federal government.

The fight over the constitutionality of the Bank of the United States made the central states—Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Ohio in particular—the next defenders of states' rights. The points at issue here were settled in McCulloch v. Maryland by decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, dominated by John Marshall, whose broad interpretation of the Constitution laid the foundations of strong central government. The doctrine was revived in the conflict between the federal government and Georgia as to which had jurisdiction over Native American tribes within Georgia's boundaries, and Georgia for a time defied the federal administration. Even more acute was the situation that developed in South Carolina in opposition to the tariff acts of 1828 and 1832, when, under the leadership of John C. Calhoun, South Carolina passed its ordinance of nullification. Calhoun's doctrine of absolute state sovereignty was the most extreme of states' rights theories.

A Justification for Secession

Although proslavery forces are usually identified with a strong states' rights position, the legislature of Wisconsin adopted (1859) resolutions defending state sovereignty after the Supreme Court overruled the Wisconsin courts and upheld the conviction of an abolitionist editor for violating the fugitive slave law. Ultimately the proslavery states used states' rights doctrines to justify their secession. Eleven Southern states seceded in 1860–61 and formed the Confederacy, in which, fittingly, the doctrine of states' rights was upheld by such governors as Joseph E. Brown and Zebulon B. Vance. This undoubtedly contributed to the Confederate defeat in the Civil War, just as the disposition of some of the Thirteen Colonies to act in complete independence of the Continental Congress had hampered the American Revolution.

In the Twentieth Century

Although the Union victory in the Civil War definitively ended the possibility of nullification and secession, the states' rights doctrine did not die. In the second half of the 20th cent. it was vigorously revived by Southern opponents of the federal civil-rights program. In the presidential election of 1948, a Southern states' rights party (the Dixiecrats) was organized with J. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina as its candidate, and it carried four Southern states. The desegregation controversy of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s engendered many states' rights statements by Southern political leaders such as Gov. George C. Wallace of Alabama. In 1962, federal troops were used at the Univ. of Mississippi to enforce a federal court ruling that ordered the admission of a black student to the university. Although the doctrine of states' rights is usually associated with the Southern wing of the Democratic party, it is not exclusive to any particular section or political party. The vast increase in the powers of the federal government at the expense of the states, resulting from the incapacity of the states to deal with the complex problems of modern industrial civilization, has led to renewed interest in states' rights. In the 1980s and 90s, states' rights proponents, under the banner of "federalism" or "the New Federalism," attacked the great increase in federal government powers that had occurred since the New Deal. On taking power of both houses of Congress in the 1994 elections, conservative Republicans proclaimed the beginning of a process of "devolution," with much power reverting to the states; several years later, however, it was clear that reality had not met this prediction. State sovereignty has been affirmed and expanded, however, by recent, often narrowly decided, decisions of the Supreme Court.


See C. Warren, The Supreme Court and Sovereign States (1924); F. L. Owsley, State Rights in the Confederacy (1925, repr. 1961); A. T. Mason, The States Rights Debate (2d ed. 1972); R. E. Ellis, The Union at Risk: Jacksonian Democracy, States' Rights and the Nullification Crisis (1987); F. McDonald, States' Rights and the Union: Imperium in Imperio, 1776–1876 (2001).

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States' Rights


STATES' RIGHTS advocates believe that considerable governmental authority should be located in the separate and collective states of the United States. The concept of states' rights arose as an extension of colonial rights, which Americans had claimed when they were still under the British Crown. This idea was essential to the American Revolution and under the Articles of Confederation. When the Federal Constitutional Convention met in 1787, states' rights proponents pressed to include their ideas in the Constitution; others advocated a strong national government, with minimal power residing with the states. The federal system adopted at that convention was a reasonably satisfactory compromise that reconciled state and national power. It included an upper house, the Senate, which provided each state with equal input into the legislative process. In 1791, the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution made the states' rights doctrine more explicit: "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." From that time until 1865 the tension between national and state governments as they attempted to define their relationships to each other and to protect their respective powers constituted a major theme in American history. In 1798, the promulgation of the Kentucky and Virginia resolutions, which protested acts passed by the national Congress, were manifestations of states' rights. The Hartford Convention of 1814, called by New Englanders who disagreed with President James Madison's wartime policies, was another example of states' rightism.

Although various individual states and groups of states from time to time appealed to the principle of states' rights for their political and economic protection, the South is most often associated with the doctrine. In the first half of the nineteenth century, when disputes arose over the tariff, the national bank, public land policies, internal improvement, and the like, southern leaders used arguments based on states' rights in their attempts to protect their economic interests. They usually lost these battles to maintain their economic power, and their appeals to constitutional principle went unheeded. Overriding all the other disputes was the question of the extension of slavery into the American territories. Southern states fell back on the states' rights principle once again when northerners argued that slavery should not extend into new states. Various events of the 1850s, including the Compromise of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska controversy, the formation of the Republican Party, civil strife in Kansas, the Dred Scott decision and John Brown's raid, and the election of Abraham Lincoln as president in 1860, were closely related to the slavery and states' rights controversies and led directly to the Civil War. That war established the supremacy of the national government and relegated the states to lesser political and economic positions. Disputes arose from time to time about the relationship of the national and state governments, and invariably the national government emerged the victor. In the first half of the twentieth century, southern politicians continued to speak about states' rights, but this was often nothing more than oratory designed to please southern voters.

After midcentury, when the power, size, and authority of the national government became greater and more complex, many Americans began to have misgivings about the shortcomings of a massive government essentially run by bureaucrats. Those politicians who talked about states' rights often found they had more receptive audiences than previously. Controversies over the administration of welfare programs and other social services gave states' rights advocates issues that they could exploit. More important, the cry for states' rights was often a thinly disguised but firm stand against racial integration in regard to education, public accommodations, politics and voting, housing, and jobs—areas that states' righters insisted were within the sphere of the states. When Senator Strom Thurmond, at that time a Democrat opposed to President Harry S. Truman's civil rights legislation, ran as a candidate for president in 1948, his States' Rights Party carried four states and received thirty-nine electoral votes, the third-largest electoral vote for an independent party in U.S. history. But the revival of states' rights arguments in the third quarter of the twentieth century had little basic impact on the general locus of political power. The national government continued to be more powerful, and the states remained in secondary roles. The attempts of the founders of the United States to divide sovereignty between national and state governments laid the basis for many controversies throughout the nation's history, but on the whole the structures of government that they established functioned well. Except for the Civil War, disputes were settled peacefully. Even as the national government gained more power within the limits of the Constitution after the mid-twentieth century, there appeared to be no prospect of a serious revolt over the diminishing rights of the states.


Dew, Charles B. Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War. Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 2001.

Frederickson, Kari A. The Dixiecrat Revolt and the End of the Solid South, 1932–1968. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

Freehling, William W. Prelude to Civil War: The Nullification Controversy in South Carolina, 1816–1836. Reprint, New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Mason, Alpheus Thomas, ed. The States Rights Debate: Antifederalism and the Constitution. 2d ed. New York, Oxford University Press, 1972.



See alsoCivil War ; Sectionalism ; "South Carolina Exposition and Protest" ; State Sovereignty ; States' Rights in the Confederacy .

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States' Rights (Issue)


Because of its fundamental relationship to the political and constitutional foundations of the United States, the issue of states' rights has been an enduring problem throughout the history of the United States. At its core, the matter raised questions of sovereignty and authority, and often overlapped other questions, like whether the country should have a centralized or decentralized government. Moreover, it had strong implications for the American economy, especially regarding trade, tariffs, banking, and labor, among others.

In the early eighteenth century the thirteen colonies of British North America had more in common with the Crown, especially economically, than they did with each other. But as that relationship slipped into acrimonyespecially during the American Revolution (17751783)the fight against a common foe, the forces of independence, the communication between the respective social classes in the different regions of the country and the evolution to statehood forged a greater sense of unity among the former thirteen colonies. Under the Articles of Confederation (adopted in 1777) the states retained political autonomy. The Confederation Congress had little authority and was unable to exert any effective control over the economic activity of individual states as well as the states' relations with foreign countries and with each other. The national government could not levy taxes, issue money, or enforce a uniform tariff on imports and exports. Congress could only ask the states for funds with which to fight the war and carry out the work of government.

When the framers of the Constitution assembled in the spring of 1787, they were faced with the sobering evidence of what independence had wrought. The machinery of government was clearly too cumbersome for the tasks that it had to accomplish. Yet they also remained dedicated to their revolutionary ideal of more liberty and less government. In the end, the Constitution that they produced reflected both realities. In the Tenth Amendment, the framers granted to the states a kind of states' bill of rights which specified that ". . . powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution; nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively. . . ." The Constitution did give the federal government the powers to tax, borrow, and coin money, regulate foreign and interstate commerce, establish a postal service, and issue patents and copyrights, but it also imposed constraints on the government's ability to regulate trade. The federal government could not impose duties on exports, could not discriminate against the ports of any state in its commercial regulations, could not restrict a carrier's freedom to enter or leave a state without stopping in another, and finally, could not extend any trade barriers between the states themselves.

When the First Bank of the United States (17911811) was chartered, the issue of states' rights was again raised. According to its charter, the First Bank was allowed to operate in all states, which gave it a considerable edge over state banks that could only operate in the states that chartered them. The First Bank maintained a large banking network in various parts of the country and it was also able to hold more notes than state banks. Proponents of states rights and advocates of free commerce, therefore, were instrumental in defeating legislation to re-charter the First Bank in 1812. They feared that it posed obstacles to the growth of state banks. This controversy continued when, years later, many critics blamed the Second Bank of the United States (18161836) for the panic (the word that was used for depression) of 1819. Maryland, Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina, Kentucky and Ohio enacted laws to tax branches of the Second Bank out of existence. However, the Supreme Court handed down decisions in McCulloch v. Maryland (1819) and Osborne v. United States Bank (1824) which declared unconstitutional any state law that restricted the activities of the Second Bank of the United States.

During the 1820s and early 1830s, during heated Congressional debate over tariffs, the issue of states' rights again came to the fore. Southern states complained that the North was benefiting from tariffs at the expense of the South. Then Vice President John C. Calhoun (17821850), himself a southerner, put forth a states' rights constitutional doctrine called "Nullification". In what came to be known as the "nullification crisis" the legislature of South Carolina declared that the tariffs of 1828 and 1832 were "unauthorized by the Constitution" and therefore "null, void . . . [and] . . .not binding upon this State, its officers or citizens." The passage of that declaration of nullification, in the view of Calhoun and the legislature of South Carolina, automatically made the disputed law unconstitutional. Then the U.S. Congress was obliged to pass an amendment to the Constitution explicitly affirming the constitutionality of the law. At that point, the state had the option of either abiding by the law or else peacefully seceding from the Union.

Such a doctrine would have severely limited the central power of the federal government. Although the president at the time, Andrew Jackson, was on some issues friendly to states' rights, he was enraged over this challenge to the sovereignty of the national government. He threatened to have Vice President Calhoun hanged, he mobilized the U.S. Navy, and had the U.S. Congress pass a "force bill" to ensure the effective implementation of the disputed tariff laws.

The nullification crisis was only a part of the cause for Southern economic and political discontent. The episode represented growing sectional differences between North and South. Tariffs, which tended to favor manufactured goods over raw goods, reaffirmed the agrarian South's subordinate relationship to the North. After the Panic of 1837, Southern cotton went into a sustained decline while industrial commerce in the North continued to prosper. Moreover, because western expansion in the United States afforded Northeastern business interests other sources for raw goods, manufacturers became less dependent on the South as a supplier of raw materials.

Southerners believed that they were victims of a sinister conspiracy supported by Northern bankers, merchants, manufacturers, and their political agents. Southerners accused them of rigging prices, of manipulating the money market, and of causing much of the wealth of the South to flow steadily into the hands of the northern economic elite. On top of this, the South resented the Abolitionist Movement against slavery. In reaction to the anti-slavery movement, Southerners began to extol the differences between their agrarian economy and that of the industrialized North. Southerners characterized the institution of slavery as essential to their economy and their way of life. Slavery was a necessary labor regime, they argued, and the slaves themselves were almost like family members. Accordingly, they rooted their economic arguments in agrarian values and paternalistic notions of family and grounded their political voices in the rights of each individual state.

When the Southern vote against then-Presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln (186165) proved futile in the election of 1860, most South Atlantic states turned to what they believed was their only legal recourse the right to secede from the Union. Secession was most popular in the deep South wherever the plantation system and slavery were well established. While many people in the upper South felt strong ties to the Union, they had a strong affinity for vested southern values, the southern agrarian economy, and the institution of slavery. Coupled with a strong belief in the rights of the states which dated back to Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, the issue of states' rights was never so strongly articulated as when the southern states exercised what they believe was a Constitutional right to secede. The outcome of that action, the Civil War and Reconstruction, resulted in settling the questions of precedencethe rights of states or the superior authority of a republican form of government.

See also: Bank of the United States (First National), Bank of the United States (Second National), Civil War (Economic Causes of)


Baack, Bennett, and Ray, Edward. "The Political Economy of Tariff Policy: A Case Study of the United States." Explorations in Economic History, 30, 1983.

Craven, Avery O. The Growth of Southern Nationalism. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1953.

Freehling, W.W. Prelude to Civil War: The Nullification Crisis in South Carolina 18161836. Reprint. Oxford University Press, 1992.

Nettels, Curtis P. The Emergence of A National Economy, 17751815. New York: Holt, Rhinehart and Winston, 1962.

Timberlake, Richard H., Jr. The Origins of Central Banking in the United States. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978.

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states rights

states' rights In the USA, the doctrine that the states have authority in matters not delegated to the federal government. The controversy between federal and state jurisdiction reached a peak with John C. Calhoun's interpretation that a state could refuse to obey a federal law it deemed unconstitutional. This led to the Nullification Crisis (1832) and contributed to secession and the Civil War. It was also an issue during the civil rights' movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

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states rights

states' rights • pl. n. the rights and powers held by individual U.S. states rather than by the federal government.

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