States' Rights and American History


Liberal Princeton historian Sean Wilentz recently tried to discredit critics of Obama's health care legislation by linking them to the pro-slavery and pro-segregation forces that many Americans associate with the concept of states' rights. As if on cue, that notorious right-winger, Katrina Vanden Heuvel of The Nation, reminds liberals and progressives that while states' rights arguments have certainly been used by racists, that's hardly the entire story:

Take the insidious Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which allowed the federal government to override local autonomy, even in the North, to help Southerners capture escaped slaves. Northerners decried the law as a breach of states' rights; it effectively extended slavery into supposedly free states. But Southerners, who relied on a states' rights argument to preserve slavery, took the opposite tack in this case and embraced the federal government–Washington's power was needed to enforce the law and maintain the Peculiar Institution. As historian (and Nation editorial board member) Eric Foner points out, "…[I]t's a very odd thing that a region, the South, which supposedly believed in states' rights and local autonomy, pressed for this law which allowed the federal government to completely override the legal processes in the North: to send marshals in, to avoid the local courts, and to just seize people (they might be free born) and just drag them into the South as slaves. It shows that the South didn't believe in states' rights. It believed in slavery. States' rights was a defense of slavery. But when active federal power was needed to defend slavery, they were perfectly happy to utilize that also."