Health care reform

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."


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  1. People need to point this out.

    We should remember that the women’s suffrage and legal recognition of same-sex “marriage” started in the states.

    1. As well as medical marijuana and assisted suicide to name some other positives. However, it also leads to the states happily infringing on our liberties in some states so badly that elected politicians seriously suggest banning salt in cooking.

      “State’s Rights” is merely a method of implementing laws whether good or bad. It could rightly be argued that a less centralized government allows us to have a more direct influence on our elected officials or at least allow us to vote with our feet but lets be serious it can also lead to even more restrictions on liberty. A bad law is a bad law whether made by the local councilman or by the president himself unilaterally.

      1. Luckily, if those crappy things are done on a state level, one can always move to another state without that restriction (ideally). Unfortunately, when the federal government makes bad policies, emigration is not so easy.

        1. Exactly.

      2. States don’t have rights; humans do. To say that humans in one state have rights that don’t apply to humans in another only serves to obfuscate the very concept of “rights.”

      3. I can’t get a hard on about “states rights”, when that could mean the “right” of a state government to imprison people over actual rights.

  2. Tom Woods did a fine job of shredding Wilentz here:


  3. I am actually impressed that Van Heuvel can discern the difference between a principal and an outcome, and is intellectually honest enough to bring it up.
    For the record, I am not that all impressed with the 50 laboratories of freedom, as they seem to me easily corruptable and frequently the first to try to limit rights.
    And I think opposition to health care based on states rights is silly. Opposition should be based on the reality that it will raise costs, do nothing to improve health, and limit alternatives and limit choices.

    1. And I think opposition to health care based on states rights is silly. Opposition should be based on the reality that it will raise costs, do nothing to improve health, and limit alternatives and limit choices.

      With the federal government, a states’ rights argument is easy.

    2. The “principal” is your “pal”

      1. Yeah. OK.

    3. For the record, I am not that all impressed with the 50 laboratories of freedom centralized overarching authority, as they it seems to me easily corruptable and frequently the first to try to limit rights.

      1. 55 mph national speed limit.
        21 year old national drinking age.
        The local elementary school curriculum is next.

        1. The federal government controls the states by bribing them with their own money.

          1. Not the states’ money. The taxpayers’ money.

            1. Fair enough, but I think you get my point.

      2. State governments are centralized overarching authority too.

    4. I would rather have a federal government that takes away “states rights” by enforcing absolute individual liberty.

  4. …[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…

    What’s odd is that “the South” is blamed in this scenario for a law that passed in Congress and was signed by the President.

    Perhaps — just perhaps — there was more nuance than that?

    1. Yay! Can we get into a multi-hundred posts pissing match between tribal Northerners and tribal Southerners? Nothing better than that. Bonus points for Southerners for calling it “the war of Northern aggression” and for Northerners for conflating all Southerners with slave owners!

      HOLY FUCKING SHIT this crap is tiresome…and it’s 160 years old.

      1. I don’t like him very much, but Episiarch is dead right this time.

        1. One of your points is wrong. Dead wrong.

          1. Well, you just dead. And have been since the first few minutes of the movie.

            1. Epi and SugarFree are right. As long as discussions about the Civil War devolve into that, nobody gains anything.

              1. Nothing in the comment “devolve[d] into that”. I specifically called for additional nuance in response to a black-and-white argument.

                Obviously this has gone badly before, but whatever you’re sick of, I’m not the one selling it.

                1. Art-P.O.G. is right about Epi and SugarFree being right.

      2. Most southerners’ were perhaps not slave owner’s. Most of the Southern political class was.

    2. Because the 3/5ths rule and the obsession with keeping the an even number of free and slave states gave the slave states more power in the legislature iin the electoral college. Most president’s in that era received significant support from the South. That’s why they went ballistic over Lincoln’s election, he did not.

    3. Perhaps — just perhaps — you’re missing the point?

      1. Entirely possible. If only there were some way to discuss the ideas presented by commenting on them…

  5. Bonus points for … conflating all Southerners with slave owners!

    That’s that part I was objecting to. Didn’t realize it was such a nerve.

  6. But it WAS about Northern Aggression!!!

    1. End the Northern Occupation!

  7. Shut up slave owner!!!

    1. Southerners weren’t all slaveholders back then.

      But they are all racists today.

      1. The most overtly racist people I have ever met were native Bostonians. Just sayin’.

        1. For me, it’s black people. Think Jeremiah Wright. Jesse Jackson. Van Jones…

          1. Aren’t they all Northerners too?

            1. Why should I care where these hyper-racists come from?

        2. Well, now you are being racist against Bostonians.

        3. Haven’t visited New York, I take it?


  8. I saw Katrina Vanden Heuvel on TV this weekend and it looks as if over the last few weeks she has aged at least a decade.

    1. Perhaps she has uvula issues.

      1. Her portrait was in a house fire.

  9. States dont have rights. They have powers.

    1. Bullshit.

      1. I cant tell if that is a commentary about Obama that I dont get or someone disagreeing with me who forgot to change their joke name.

  10. The same argument can be applied to so-called “conservatives” today.

    Whenever they’re out of power, they can’t form a sentence without mentioning the Constitution or federalism. But once they have power, we get things like the “Defense of Marriage Act,” or the partial-birth abortion ban, or that Terri Schaivo law.

    1. DOMA doesn’t fit (it says states don’t have to recognize gay marriages in other states) but the other two are good examples.

      1. Nope. DOMA defines marriage at the federal level too, which is something congress has no constitutional authority to do. There is also that little “full faith and credit” thing to consider.

        1. It only defines marriage as it applies to federal law, which is hardly overstepping constitutional authority.

          1. So it would be OK for the Fed not to recognize any marriage performed in Iowa, for example?

      2. Agreed. As an aside, I did get to personally chide Bob Barr for DOMA back in the 1990s.

    2. Pretty sure everyone here agrees that both major parties are willing to be deceptive fucks and use whatever power they have to STAY in power.

    3. Or the fucking Patriot Act.

  11. Katrina, Katrina, how fucking astute and insightful of you to point out that people advocate legislation, whether federal or state, that reinforces and justifies their respective positions on certain policies and issues. Thanks, fruitcake.

  12. If the best argument you can raise against federalism is something that happened over 150 years ago, you’re probably in the wrong.

    One of the more interesting theories I’ve read lately posits that the U.S. is too large to be centrally governed, and that the attempt to create a purely centralized government is likely to lead to a break-up.

    I don’t know if I agree with this theory 100%, but it is worth a thought. The federal government has been steadily taking power away from the states since the Civil War ended, and I suppose it’s possible that there is a breaking point to be reached eventually.

    1. Mind sourcing that theory?

      I don’t distrust you, I’d just like access to the source. It seems interesting and could be some good material.

      Though I suppose I could just google it.

      1. The reason I didn’t include the source is because I honestly can’t remember. I read it in passing and didn’t make a mental note of the author. I guess I’m getting too old for this stuff. 🙂

  13. Katrina Vanden Heuvel should have used a better example to make her point. Slave reclamation was a private property issue just as much as it was a states rights issue. Slaves were chattel back then, so a legitimate argument can be made that they had to be returned to their owners.

  14. Katrina van Heuvel agreeing with you is syrup of ipecac for the libertarian stomach.

    1. Not necessarily. If she’s right on her arguments, it doesn’t bother me that her desired end game is fundamentally different than mine. I’ll take any help I can get rolling back the power of the fed.

  15. funny that they have no problem with states rights when it comes to medical marijuana laws.

    1. It is crazy how hypocritical both parties can be from issue to issue, yet no one from their constituencies is bright enough to see it. Apparently on some issues war is peace and peace is war.

  16. “Liberal Princeton historian”

    Can we please stop referring to people like this as liberal?

    1. Hear, hear. It confuses Europeans.

      Let’s call them Social Democrats. Because they’re almost certain both socialists and DNC partisans.

      Besides, I like to call myself liberal, from time to time, without having to take a shower afterward.

  17. Where were those who now blather so glibly about “states’ rights” when the principal advocates of health insurance reform were Bill Clainton and Ted Kennedy. both of whose faces are/were unsually white, but sometimes red?

    Let’s not kid ourselves. “States’ rights” is a shibboleth for racists.

    If Ronald Reagan wound up on the other side in the same place as Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney–a proposition that I very much doubt–wouldn’t it have been interesting to hear what he had to say to them?

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