US History/States Rights

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The Position[edit]

One of the main causes for the Civil War was the matter of states' rights. There was always the possibility of the federal and state governments disagreeing on some issue of law. However there was clear procedure in the constitution for settling this disagreement. The states rights position was that the states had the powers of nullification and secession to check the excesses of the federal government. If nullification was accepted, a state could declare a federal law invalid in its territory. If secession was accepted, a state could leave the union and become an independent country.

The Constitution and States Rights[edit]

The US constitution did not take a firm position either way on states rights. In fact it contained provisions that could be interpreted either way.

Article VI, clause 2 states: This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.

The Tenth Amendment 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.

Because of the 10th amendment combined with no prohibition of secession many held that the states had the power to leave the union at will. Any law to the contrary would violate the constitution. However many believed that the states had no such right because it was not expressly stated and would necessarily void laws passed under the constitution in the seceding states.

The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions[edit]

The Alien and Sedition Acts passed in 1798 generated a lot of opposition. They were correctly seen as a tool to suppress the political opponents of the ruling Federalist Party. Because of this Thomas Jefferson and James Madison drafted resolutions against them. These resolutions were passed by the legislatures of Kentucky and Virginia. They argued that the laws were unconstitutional and therefore were nullified. Other states responded that this was inappropriate and state legislatures could not determine the constitutionality of the laws. The issue of the Alien and Sedition Acts was resolved when Jefferson was elected president 1800. When he took office the laws expired and he pardoned those who had been convicted. However the issue of States Rights was not resolved.

Nullification Crisis[edit]

In 1828 Congress raised tariffs on imported goods. This made imported goods more expensive than American manufactured goods. Northern factories benefited from this because imported goods were no longer cheaper than what they produced. In addition, much of the money raised was spent on internal improvements in the north. The southern states paid the majority of the tariff because they sold cotton abroad and bought manufactured goods either from the north or other countries. They viewed the tariff as an unfair law made to benefit the north at their expense. South Carolina passed a Nullification Ordinance declaring that the tariffs were null and void within Carolina. President Andrew Jackson threatened to send in government troops and ships to enforce the tariff. In 1832 he signed a law lowering the tariffs. Because the threat of using troops was made but the federal government backed down without carrying it out, the issue of nullification remained unresolved.

Other Issues[edit]

States rights were also invoked for slavery, against the fugitive slave act, and against the War of 1812. However at no point were the questions of states rights answered before the civil war.