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States’ Rights during Civil War and Reconstruction

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    States’ Rights during Civil War and Reconstruction


    During the Civil War and Reconstruction, the subject of states’ rights was of much controversy. The South wanted to retain states’ rights so that it could have slavery, but Northerners/Federalists were afraid that granting states’ too many rights would result in a disjointed government like that of the United States under the Articles of Confederation.  Ultimately, the North succeeded and the Federalists prevailed, but it was not until years after the Civil War and even reconstruction that the United States government was truly restructured to benefit all.

    States’ Rights during Civil War and Reconstruction

    During the mid-1800s, state’s rights were a subject of much controversy and disagreement. As a result, after the Southern states seceded and the Civil War broke out,  granting states’ rights was the goal of both Abraham Lincoln, who desperately wanted to keep the United States united, and Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy. People in the South claimed states’ rights to be the underlying basis of the tenth Amendment, while Northerners found slavery to be a unifying cause and states’ rights to be diversifying. Both sides were firmly rooted upon their goals, and it was not until after the end of the Civil War and Reconstruction that the United States was able to stand somewhat undivided upon the issue.

    Proponents of states’ rights argued that a strong central government was not dissimilar to that of Britain which Americans had left in pursuit of their own freedom. It was, as the Southerners claimed, the flaws in this unbalanced, unspecific way of ruling a vast country that caused the Founding Fathers created the Constitution. The Tenth Amendment clearly 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” (cited in Populist Party). With many individual sets of laws and methods of activity, each state could help its people in the best possible, personalized way. Limiting the states’ powers would be unconstitutional.

    Anti-federalists wanted to get rid of the excess power of the executive branch and the Necessary and Proper Clause, and add a Bill of Rights.  The Necessary and Proper clause allowed the Legislative Branch to claim the power to pass any and all laws that would help the governing body carry out its goals. Anti-federalists thought that this granted the central government too much power. In response to the Alien and Sedition Acts, in which Congress was allowed to deport certain people and do other “unconstitutional acts”, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison published the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions (The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798). Their idea was that if the central government could exercise whatever powers it deemed necessary, the state governments deserved the power to deem central government acts unconstitutional and power-greedy.

    “We, the people of the Confederate States, each State acting in its sovereign and independent character…” (cited in Weeks, 1997) The first few words of the Confederate States Constitution reflected how important states’ rights were to the Southerners. However, the rest of the Constitution contained little on how the Southerners would approach reforming the government to give the states more rights. Many components of the Confederate Constitution, were alike, if not the exact same, as many parts of the United States Constitution that caused Confederates anger. These anti-federalists, in some ways, were like little children. They complained, but did not go about the right ways of achieving what they wanted. They exited one government only to recreate it, and were angry at others as a result of their own actions. The new government the Confederates made was arguably even more Federalist than the old one, since the Confederacy could acquire new territory, slavery was universally protected, and Congress could make any laws necessary and proper. Any disputes over Confederate laws would be taken directly to national, not state, court. Ironically, the 11 states that exited the United States exercised held the reigns even tighter on their own people, going so far as to limiting who could vote and encouraging segregation.

     During the period of the Articles of Confederation, when states possessed power and were united under a weak national government, the United States found itself failing under no supporting structure. Those against states’ rights perhaps took their position because they did not want to make the same error twice. While under the Articles of Confederation, America was under severe debt and could not get out of it without the power to tax. Commerce was not regulated, and so states often engaged in competition amongst themselves. Some states unfairly taxed merchants transporting goods to earn money. Individual states could not act in synchrony of each other as well, and often ideas clashed and fights arose. The central government lacked any power to carry out actions to defend the states during war. Eventually, with so much power, the states would have become truly individual without owing any duties to the central government. During the Civil War, states used states’ rights as an excuse to ignore the efforts of Confederate president Jefferson Davis to control blockade and manufacturing, impress slavery, and strengthen national security. This was one of the reasons the Confederacy struggled to raise troops to fight during the Civil War.

    Lincoln once said, “Plainly the central idea of secession is the essence of anarchy” (cited in Lincoln, 1861). Perhaps one of the reasons the Confederacy was not a stable government was because of concealed goals. Was it really states’ rights they desired, or was it the right to have slavery, secede after they did  not like the result of an election, and only allow rich whites to vote in elections? Although Lincoln’s idea of anarchism may seem a little extreme, it is undeniable that the latter choices were all desires of the South.

    The first state, South Carolina, seceded 3 months before abolitionist Abraham Lincoln was elected President. Its succession was not because it was afraid Lincoln would banish states’ rights, which was an issue Lincoln expressed flexibility on. South Carolina, however, was very set on slavery – its economy depended almost entirely on it. Thus, it is reasonable to state that one of the main reasons people wanted states’ rights was to keep their economy and income.

    Both the states’ rights proponents and opponents had strengths and weaknesses. Ultimately, the North, which was mostly Federalists, held the advantage of an already established government, a larger population for the army, and an industry fit for manufacturing. The South was just developing and getting used to being independent- it could not manage to hold off outer battles while still facing inner conflicts. “A house divided cannot stand” really does summarize not only why the South was not strong, but also why the United States could not continue harboring the conflicts of states’ rights and slavery. Because many of the arguments for states’ rights were really cover ups for arguments to retain slavery, those against states’ rights had a stronger argument and were able to successfully pull through the Civil War.

    The South, and Jefferson Davis, wanted to be left alone. They wished desperately to be able to govern themselves with their own principles. Lincoln, however, would not allow that. He would not allow for a part of the United States to perish under itself, and tried with every fiber of his being to hold the United States together and do his job. Going into the Civil War, President Lincoln saw his main goal to be reuniting the United States and forming a more perfect union, as the Constitution states.  He soon realized that “…Unanimity is impossible. The rule of a minority, as a permanent arrangement, is wholly inadmissible; so that, rejecting the majority principle, anarchy or despotism in some form is all that is left” (cited in Lincoln, 1861). Since complete unity was impractical, treaties and compromises were a better aim. Unfortunately, during Reconstruction, no one enforced laws or tried to change conditions, and it was not until the advent of the 19th century that states’ rights supporters truly realized how many drawbacks there were to states’ rights.

    Lincoln, A. (1861, March 4). Abraham Lincoln: First Inaugural Address. Retrieved June 30, 2009, from

    Populist Party. (n.d.). 10th Amendment. Retrieved July 1, 2009, from The Populist Party:

    The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. (n.d.). Retrieved July 1, 2009, from Archiving Early America:

    Weeks, D. (1997, January 7). The Constitution of the Confederate States of America. . Retrieved July 1, 2009, from Home of the American Civil War:

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