State's Rights, Theory of

views updated


War has affected American society and culture in many ways. In particular the Civil War (1861–1865) was a conflict over a theory of government as well as a war to end slavery. The South ascribed to the theory that the states were supreme and that the national or federal government was created by the states. Under this theory the United States was more like a compact formed by independent countries, in which states retained the right to decide what national laws applied to them and even the right to withdraw from the compact. The victory of the North in the Civil War rejected, but has not removed, that theory from the mainstream of American society.

In 1787, during the debates over the Constitution, the issue of state's rights came to center stage. Though almost all agreed that the national government needed to be strengthened, many believed that the new central government being created in Philadelphia would threaten their liberties. They believed that their local and state governments would be most responsive to their needs and therefore wanted as many limitations as possible on the power of the national governments over the states.

The most vocal proponent of states rights during the early republic was Thomas Jefferson. He produced one of his most significant writings on this subject during the presidency of John Adams, when the fiercely contested Alien and Sedition Acts were used by the national government to restrict freedom of speech and dissent against Adams's policies. Many saw this as unconstitutional. In the Kentucky Resolves, Jefferson attacked the Constitutionality of these acts on several counts, especially the national government's infringement on state's rights. Excluded from the final draft, however, was the word "nullification." This is the idea that a state should have the power to declare a federal law they believed to be unconstitutional, "null" and void within their own borders.

The theory of "nullification" was later used during a regional conflict over tariffs—the tariffs would be beneficial to the North but detrimental to the South. The South protested these tariffs as being unconstitutional. One of the most ardent defenders of state's rights, John Calhoun, wrote "Exposition and Protest," which attacked the constitutionality of the tariffs and affirmed the idea of nullification. South Carolina acted on his idea and declared the tariffs unconstitutional and therefore null and void within the boundaries of South Carolina. Though the conflict was settled with a compromise, this was not a deterrent to the belief of many that nullification was the right of states.

After the war with Mexico in 1848, new issues faced the country involving the expansion of slavery. In 1850, Southern states called for a convention to be held in Nashville, Tennessee, to try and organize a united front on the question. But the convention failed. The states mistrusted each other and focused on their own concerns rather than on the greater interest of the South. The notion of state's rights greatly hampered the ability to compromise or to sacrifice for the good of the whole.

The flaws in the state's right theory became more evident during the Civil War. Though there was a national government for the Confederacy under Jefferson Davis, southern states were not about to give up their rights to that government—the very rights many believed the Confederacy was defending against the North. Davis had a difficult time getting individual states to think in terms of the good of the Confederacy. Many southern states objected to such necessary war measures as a draft and taxation, on the basis that they infringed on their rights as states.

The end of the war was a serious blow for the doctrine of state's rights in both the North and the South. The federal government asserted its authority over the rights of individual states. Citizens began to identify with the national government rather than with their local or state governments. Before the war it was common to refer to the United States as "are"; after the war it became the United States "is."

In particular, the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution established the principle that Americans are citizens of one nation and empowered the national government to uphold their rights. Although the issue of federalism—meaning which powers are better exercised by the federal or state governments—remains a vital part of American political culture, the principle of state's rights as understood by the South in the Civil War is no longer a central feature of the nation's politics.

Brian D. Stokes

See also:Confederate States of America; Davis, Jefferson.

About this article

State's Rights, Theory of

Updated About content Print Article


State's Rights, Theory of