Posted by: Rational Voice | September 21, 2010

More on States’ Rights

The issue of states’ rights extends far beyond just the current issue of healthcare reform and the fight over slavery. It is, or used to be at least, the core of America. Our Founders wanted decentralized government, with, like I pointed out last time with President Madison’s words in Federalist 45, the preponderance of control left to the people, ie, the states. They purposefully put strict limits on what the Federal government was allowed to do. They feared a strong central government and therefore sought to limit it. They wanted the focus to be on state and local governments because those governments were closer to the people and therefore better able to address the concerns and wishes of the people.

This idea of decentralized government started back in colonial America. With Great Britain so far away and with communication being so slow, the colonists created their own local governments to address issues that arose, rather than waiting for word from Britain. The British government really had no idea anyways of what the local situations were as it was, so it only made sense for the colonists to take issues into their own hands. Also, the British government, after seeing that the colonies weren’t the cash-cow they had hoped they’d be, basically let the colonists control themselves. This lack of control has come to be known as “Salutary Neglect”. It was only after a series of wars in the mid-1700s that the British again turned their eyes to the colonies, who had actually become fairly wealthy. The British needed money to help pay for their wars and imposed taxes on the colonies. The colonies rejected these taxes because they had no representation in the British government. While they still saw themselves as British citizens, they were accustomed to being left alone and to do their own thing rather than being under the thumb of the strong, centralized British government. After a series of other taxes and draconian policies used to try to subject the American colonies to the British policies, we rose up against the British and the rest is history. And to prevent a strong government from ever implementing such policies again, we created a system of loosely associated states under the Articles of Confederation. In essence, America was a series of nations bound together in some respects by a common treaty, able to make their own decisions without a central government meddling in their affairs. It turns out that the Articles didn’t work and there was a need for a central government to keep the confederation of states together, so our Founders wrote the Constitution which, as I outlined in my last piece on this subject, created a system of joint sovereignty. While they did need a stronger system to keep the fledgling nation together, they still wanted the focus to be on the states and, like I said, put very strict limits on the Federal government. The states were to be the deciders on issues affecting the people, not the Federal government.

Even soon after the Constitution was ratified, some thought the Federal government was already overstepping its boundaries when a Federalist congress passed and President John Adams signed into law the Alien and Sedition Acts, which, among other things, made it a crime to criticize the Federal government which many saw as trampling the 1st Amendment. In response, the states of Kentucky and Virginia each passed resolution condemning the laws. Instead of trying to summarize what they said, here are some good excerpts discussing the resolutions. Yes, they’re from Wikipedia but they say it well and accurately:

The resolutions opposed the federal Alien and Sedition Acts, which extended the powers of the federal government. They argued that the Constitution was a “compact” or agreement among the states. Therefore, the federal government had no right to exercise powers not specifically delegated to it and that if the federal government assumed such powers, acts under them would be void. So, states could decide the constitutionality of laws passed by Congress.

This site also discusses the Resolutions and a host of other states rights issues and has a great line pertaining to the Resolutions:

In 1798, the legislatures of Virginia and Kentucky approved resolutions that affirmed the states’ right to resist federal encroachments on their powers. If the federal government has the exclusive right to judge the extent of its own powers, warned the resolutions’ authors (James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, respectively), it will continue to grow – regardless of elections, the separation of powers, and other much-touted limits on government power. The Virginia Resolutions spoke of the states’ right to “interpose” between the federal government and the people of the state; the Kentucky Resolutions (in a 1799 follow-up to the original resolutions) used the term “nullification” – the states, they said, could nullify unconstitutional federal laws.

This quickly after the signing there was already a debate over how large the Federal government should be and what powers the states possessed. Did they have the power to keep the Federal government in check, refuse to follow Federal laws they deemed unconstitutional, or even nullify them? It was an issue that would grip the nation through our bloody Civil War.

Years later, the American statesman Henry Clay, along with others, proposed the “American System”, an economic plan to help the United States to grow economically. The plan called for high tariffs on imported goods, the maintained high prices on the sales of Federal lands to keep revenue flowing into the Federal government, the preservation of the Bank of the United States, and internal improvements (roads, canals, etc). While there was much controversy with the plan, some of it dealt with (surprise here) the issue of states rights. The South, which was much more rural and agrarian than the industrialized North, thought than much of the plan would hurt them and was unconstitutional since there were no provisions for aspects of it (ie the internal improvements). Also, they felt money would be spent mainly in the North on the internal improvement, thereby spending the money unequally. They felt if the Federal government could do things there were no provisions for in the Constitution and get away with it, then what else might they try? They feared the Federal government was getting too large and that it would soon interfere with state issues. While they may have had a legitimate concern, the biggest state issue they were concerned with was slavery. They thought if the Federal government could arbitrarily implement this plan and spend that money they might very well intervene and abolish slavery. They wanted the Federal government to stay within it’s confines and leave such issues up to the states themselves.  While I bring this issue up to show how the debate over states’ rights has been more than just healthcare and slavery, I am not trying to say the South (or North for that matter) was in the right or in the wrong here. Even as a historian I still haven’t made up my mind on whether the American system was Constitutional or not. I need to do a lot more research before I pass any such judgement on it.

Another time when the issue of, not so much states’ rights, but the rights of the people rose was after the Mexican-American War in the 1840s. We were already expanding westward and then acquired a vast amount of new territory. The issue that confronted our nation was whether or not these territories would be free or slave. Since the Missouri Compromise of 1820 limited where slavery was allowed, it seemed like a done deal. However, both sides of the debate feared on side, either slave or free, gaining more power in Congress, some wanted the people of the territories to decide for themselves whether they wanted to be free or slave through “Popular Sovereignty” and the Kansas-Nebraska_Act was born. Basically, instead of the Federal government delineating where slavery could go, they left it up to the people of the territories and soon to be states. Many in the North saw this as a Southern power-grab and the issue exploded into Bleeding Kansas.

These are just a few of the examples you can find dealing with states’ rights in antebellum America. I’m not going to say whether one side was right or wrong on these issues, though I do have some opinions on some. Rather, I just want to point out that the issue of states’ rights before the current issue of healthcare rose, dealt with more than just racism and slavery, despite what the Left would like you to believe. Some of these issues have been simplified, mainly because to really delve into any of these issues into any real detail would require writing a book. After the Civil War the issue of states’ really died down, mainly, I believe, because slavery was outlawed by the 13th Amendment, thereby killing the contentious issue for good. While the issue of states’ rights did died down, the Federal government did remain small and, for the most part, within the confines of the Constitution, at least until the late 1800-early 1900s. Even then the issue of states’ rights never really rose up, at least not on any significant level, until today when the Federal government started passing laws forcing the states to do this and that (without giving them any money to do so) under the healthcare bill.



  1. States right come up often even before healthcare. For instance while I was still in High School the Supreme Court ruled my home state, Missouri, could not execute a convicted rapist/murderer. This despite a fair trial and a full appeals process. Then there’s Arizona and immigration. Heck even Regan made some grabs by withholding highway money in exchange for higher alcohol age limits.

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