January 12, 2001

"How Southern Violations of States Rights Caused the Civil War"

By Nathan Newman <nathan@newman.org>

The comments of Interior Secretary nominee Gale Norton talking about the "loss" of states rights due to the Civil War just once more highlights the lie that the Civil War was fought over states rights, rather than fought to preserve slavery.

In fact, if anything, the Civil War was caused by Southern States using their control of the Congress and the Supreme Court to use federal law against Northern states which resisted slavery within their own territory.

The primary example of this was the Fugitive Slave Law used by the federal government to force free states to return runaway slaves to their masters in the South.

In fact, Southerners took this law and assumed the right not only to go to court to force the return of slaves but would go into Northern states and kidnap blacks, often not even slaves, while claiming that they had the right of "self-help" in recovering their "property."

In 1842, the US Supreme Court in Prigg v. Pennsylvania, 41 U.S. 536, made this right of southerners to defy Northern laws against self-help kidnappings IN NORTHERN STATES a constitutional right. The decision explicitly repudiated Northern states' rights to regulate their own affairs in regard to kidnapping in their own borders. This repudiation of states rights is clear, as Justice Story wrote: "It is scarely conceivable, that the slave-holding states would have been satisfied with leaving to the legislation of the non-slave holding states, a power of regulation, in the abscense of that of Congress." Where Southern interests in slavery mattered, they were all for extinguishing local state power in favor of that of the federal government.

The next blow to Northern states rights was of course the much more famous 1857 Dred Scott decision which declared that Southerns were free to bring slaves to free states, and yet keep those slaves as slaves in defiance of Northern anti-slavery laws. The Court declared that no state had the right to grant freedom and citizenship to such slaves or prevent them from being brought in to their states. The case makes a big deal how such control is vested solely in the federal government.

It was the South that declared war on states rights in the North, using the Congress and the US Supreme Court to de facto extend slavery into Northern states. It was the reaction in the North that three years after Dred Scott elected Abraham Lincoln into office, not on a platform of abolishing slavery in the South, but of refusing to allow the South to extend it anymore to the North.

And the South reacted to this threat to slavery, NOT TO ANY THREAT TO STATES RIGHTS, by seceding. It was the South that had abused states rights to support slavery and when it looked like they could no longer do so, they protected slavery by seceding.

It was all about slavery and racism. Nothing more, except possibly the North being the ones asserting their states rights against the abusive power of the federal government that had been controlled by the slave states.

In a similar manner, those who talk about "states rights" are the ones who are the first to support a rightwing US Supreme court intervening in the Florida election, the first to support federal government in interfering in state tort claims, the first to support the federal government in overturning laws like the Massachusetts Burma law to resist buying goods from that country.

Conservatives talk about states rights, but when local governments do anything they don't like, they are the first to invoke federal power to overturn those state laws. This is usually done for the sake of property rights, and that is the real tradition of the Confederacy - the supremacy of property rights over human rights.