Media, Politics

The Civil War Was Fought Over States’ Rights To Do What?

Was reading the Washington Post‘s coverage for the 150th anniversary of the Civil War recently, and saw this excerpt from the Charleston Mercury’s April 26th editorial [emphasis added]:

The blockade of the ports of the Confederate States, proclaimed by President LINCOLN in his late Proclamation, will certainly be followed by a recommendation, by the President of the Confederate States to the Congress to meet Monday next, to acknowledge the existence of the war against the Confederate States, and to enter upon it accordingly. . .The effort to subdue the fifteen Slave States of the South will, of course, fail; and it will accomplish that most desirable of all results — the formation of a Slaveholding Confederacy. War, it is to be hoped, will raise such an antagonism between the Slave States and the Free States as to end this peril.

Strange that they would keep bringing slavery up, since the Civil War was actually fought over “sectionalism and states’ rights.” Or that’s what the Texas Social Studies/US History standards would lead you to believe (.pdf). Right. The American Civil War was about the rights of the “Slave States” that were forming “a Slaveholding Confederacy” to protect their constitutional right to um, well, do a lot of things, but not necessarily hold slaves. That part wasn’t really a big deal in the “Slave States” who were forming a “Slaveholding Confederacy.” Nope. Didn’t matter to them at all. Just a coincidence that it came up repeatedly in that Charleston editorial.

I mean, just look at South Carolina’s “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union!” Oh, right—they also complain of “an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery.”

Well, maybe it’s a South Carolina problem, then! They’re famously radical on the ol’ peculiar institution. I mean, what about Mississippi’s Declaration of Secession?

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of the commerce of the earth…A blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization.

Huh. Strange. Maybe they set the typeface wrong…you know, they meant “S.t.a.t.e.s.’. R.i.g.h.t.s,” but somehow ended up with “S.l.a.v.e.r.y?” It’s vaguely anagrammatic. Perhaps it’s just an “honest” mistake.

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5 thoughts on “The Civil War Was Fought Over States’ Rights To Do What?

  1. I think its a bit of a silly argument. They were absolutely concerned states rights and the supremacy of state rights over federal control. (Preamble of the Confederate Constitution “We, the people of the Confederate States, each State acting in its sovereign and independent character…”) It’s just that the primary rights they were concerned with were the rights to continue the institution of slavery.

    I agree very much with historians making the case Southern “states rights” arguments were abusive, antithetical to Jeffersonian “natural rights,” and hypocritically applied to bully northern states in order to protect slavery. It doesn’t mean that they weren’t concerned with the supremacy of state rights and sovereignty.

    All that being said is especially silly to conflate the “northern” and “southern” concern’s about state’s rights. (the “northern” argument being the standard and consistent American discussion of power play between federal and state power) That is where we get this nonsense about “states rights” as a code word. Dixiecrats certainly used it as a stand in for the southern argument. But, in the modern discourse there are earnest arguments about the rights of states vis a vis the federal government and people are WAY too willing to sqwuak about “code words” and “racism” just because people are talking about the rights of individual states in the federal system. Belief that the Commerce Clause has been interpreted too expansively is not ipso facto evidence that you are a racist old Confederate.

    Once again, all that being said, diminishing the role of slavery in favor of a state rights as the trigger of the Civil War is dumb. So I guess in the end we are pretty much in agreement. It would be nice if we would teach people the difference between the interplay of state and federal power and the desire of southern states to retain the right (I contend this was never a right but the Confederates would disagree) to keep humans as chattel.

    Posted by A Fischer | April 15, 2011, 9:45 am
    • Interesting stuff. I’ll only add this, from the WaPo a few months back:

      Confederate states did claim the right to secede, but no state claimed to be seceding for that right. In fact, Confederates opposed states’ rights — that is, the right of Northern states not to support slavery.

      On Dec. 24, 1860, delegates at South Carolina’s secession convention adopted a “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union.” It noted “an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery” and protested that Northern states had failed to “fulfill their constitutional obligations” by interfering with the return of fugitive slaves to bondage. Slavery, not states’ rights, birthed the Civil War.

      This is just to point out that it’s not clear that the South was actually concerned with protecting constitutional protections for states over and against federal power…especially where slavery was concerned.

      As for contemporary Commerce Clause arguments, I’m staying out of those for the purposes of this post. That’s a larger argument for a much longer piece.

      Posted by CPW | April 15, 2011, 10:24 am


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