Adam I. P. Smith: Who in Civil War America really believed in “States’ Rights”?

Smith: The Stormy PresentFor our first post of the new year, we welcome a guest post from Adam I.P. Smith, author of The Stormy Present:  Conservatism and the Problem of Slavery in Northern Politics, 1846–1865.

In The Stormy Present, an engaging and nuanced political history of Northern communities in the Civil War era, Adam I. P. Smith offers a new interpretation of the familiar story of the path to war and ultimate victory. Smith looks beyond the political divisions between abolitionist Republicans and Copperhead Democrats to consider the everyday conservatism that characterized the majority of Northern voters. A sense of ongoing crisis in these Northern states created anxiety and instability, which manifested in a range of social and political tensions in individual communities.

The Stormy Present is available now in both print and e-book editions.


Who in Civil War America really believed in “States’ Rights”?

When people still say—as they do, a lot—that the Civil War was “really” about “states’ rights”, one common riposte is to reply “yes but the only ‘right’ they cared about was the right to own slaves.”

This is a well-intentioned line of argument but it is misleading. It implies that—yes—Confederates were committed to states’ rights even if only as a means to protect their human property. That would be bad enough, but it still gets the problem the wrong way around. The leaders of the slave states in fact opposed states’ rights and wanted a strong central government—so long as it was controlled by them, as it was for pretty much the whole time between the Revolution and the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860.

Southern state governments’ public explanations for secession explicitly mentioned as a provocation the Personal Liberty Laws passed by Northern states in the 1850s. These were state laws designed to neuter the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which gave Federal agents extraordinary power to by-pass normal law enforcement procedures in order to seize alleged runaway slaves. Supporters of John C. Breckinridge, the candidate of the southern wing of the Democratic Party in the 1860 election, demanded a Federal Slave Code—a set of regulations enforcing the ownership of human “property”. I could go on. The basic point is that it is difficult to enforce a system of human slavery unless the “owners” can rely on enforcement of their “property rights” at every level of the polity. Given the reality of enslaved people not wanting to be enslaved, slaveholders could not be content with only state-level enforcement.

This was why southerners were so delighted by the Supreme Court’s infamous Dred Scott decision of 1857. Chief Justice Taney argued that slaves were property within the meaning of the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution and that therefore no one could be deprived or his or her “property” without “due process of law.” The immediate consequence of the ruling was that any attempt by Congress to ban slavery from any U.S. territory would be unconstitutional. The wider implication—quickly seized upon by Abraham Lincoln and many others—was that slaveholders could not be deprived of their human “property” even where slavery was banned by state law. Dred Scott, in other words, promised the wholesale nationalization of the institution of slavery.

So for Northerners, the sectional crisis was all about defending their freedoms from an intrusive central government which they saw, not unreasonably given everything that was happening, as being dominated by slaveholders.

But is it fair to say that the real states’ rights champions were Northerners? Didn’t Northerners in the end just want to take control of the Federal government that they feared (with reason) was under the sway of proslavery Southerners?

Republicans definitely didn’t have any principled attachment to states’ rights. They wanted, in fact, to ensure that the weight of Federal power was used against slavery just as much as slaveholders wanted to use the Federal government in favor of slavery. Republicans wanted the Federal Government to tolerate slavery where it was protected by state law, but prevent it elsewhere.

However, there was one group of political actors in the Civil War era who really were the champions—on principle—of states’ rights: Northern Democrats. One prominent Democrat, the historian George Bancroft, explained that he hated the Dred Scott decision because of his adherence, as he put it, to the “old States-Rights School.” The founders, wrote Bancroft, had meant to leave the subject of slavery “exclusively, unreservedly with the laws of the States.” Or in the absence of a state, a U.S. Territory. To prevent territorial legislatures from exercising their own judgment on this matter struck Bancroft as the essence of the kind of centralization and meddling that as a Democrat he had spent his life opposing.

So, yes, states’ rights were a cause of the Civil War—but only as a rallying cry for Northerners in their struggle to protect their freedoms, as they saw it, from the Slave Power’s control in Washington.


Adam I. P. Smith is senior lecturer in U.S. history at University College London.  You can follow him on Twitter, and visit his blog here.  Read his previous UNC Press blog post here.