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States Rights Essay: Civil or War

Updated on April 21, 2012

States Rights Essay

Leading to the Civil War

Jordan Scott

Throughout young America’s history, there has always been a division between government, or federal power, and states’ power. Starting from the Constitution, all the way until Abraham Lincoln is elected and South Carolina feels there is no possible way to repair a relationship with the other half of the country, there has been divides, arguments, and countless bills and acts passed to try to repair relationships.

On July 2nd 1787, a convention agreed to create a “grand committee” with a single delegate from each state to resolve disagreements about how the states would be represented equally in the legislature. The “Great Compromise” was created and the proposal called for a legislature in which the states would be represented in the lower house in the basis of population, with each slave counted as 3/5’s a person. In the Upper house, states should be represented equally with two members apiece.

When ratifying the Constitution the federal government was to have broad powers, including the power to tax, to regulate commerce, to control the currency, and to pass such laws as would be “necessary and proper”. Gone was the stipulation of the Articles that “each State shall retain every power, jurisdiction, and right not expressly delegated to the US in Congress assembled”.

Alexander Hamilton proposed that the new government take responsibility for the existing public debt. The funding and assumption of debts would require new sources of revenue, since the government would now have to pay interest on the loans it was accepting. Up to now, most government revenues had come from the sale of public lands in the West. Hamilton proposed two new kinds of taxes. One was an excise to be paid by distillers of alcoholic liquors, a tax that would fall most heavily on the whiskey distillers of the backcountry, especially in Pennsylvania, Virginia and North Carolina- small farmers who converted part of their corn and rye crop into whiskey.

In 1798 the conflict with France (XYZ Affair and the Quasi War) helped the Federalists increase their majorities in Congress. Armed with this new strength, they began to consider ways to silence the Republican opposition. The Alien and Sedition acts were passed. The Alien Act placed new obstacles in the way of foreigners who wished to become American citizens, and it strengthened the President’s hand in dealing with aliens. The Sedition Act allowed the government to prosecute those who engaged in “sedition” against the government. The law made it possible to stifle virtually any opposition.

In response, Jefferson (anonymously) and Madison wrote the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions. They used the ideas of John Locke to argue that the federal government had been formed by a “compact” or contract among the states and possessed only certain delegated powers. If the states decided the central government had exceeded those powers, the states had the right to “nullify”. These resolutions were not accepted.

In 1803 began a conflict with the courts that would forever increase the power of the judicial branch and further limit states rights. In 1803 the case of Marbury vs. Madison exercised the power of judicial review.

In an effort to prevent future incidents that might bring the nation again to the brink of war with Britain, Jefferson presented a drastic measure to congress when it reconvened in 1807. Jefferson passed the Embargo which prohibited American ships from leaving the US for any foreign port anywhere in the world. The economy was affected harshly. The hardest hit was the merchants and ship-owners of the Northeast.

American government faced increasing popular opposition from the New England states as the war of 1812 dragged on. Daniel Webster who led the Federalists in New England dreamt of creating a separate nation in that region. In 1814, delegates from New England states met in Hartford, Connecticut to discuss their grievances, and discuss secession. Because the war was going so badly, the New Englanders assumed the government would have to agree with their demands. However, a couple days later, reports arrived of a negotiated peace. The Hartford Convention was irrelevant.

When Missouri applied for admission to the Union as a state in 1819, slavery was already well established there. Even so, Representative James Tallmadge, Jr. of New York proposed an amendment to the Missouri statehood bill that would prohibit the further introduction of slaves into Missouri and provide for the gradual emancipation of those already there. The Tallmadge Amendment provoked great controversy. In 1819 there were 11 Free states and 11 slave states. The admission of Missouri would upset that balance. Senator Jesse B. Thomas proposed an amendment prohibiting slavery in the rest of the Louisiana Purchase territory at the 36 30 line. Both the South and the North agreed to it.

John Marshall and the court went through cases that made the judicial branch much more powerful and took away states’ rights by the cases of

i. Fletcher vs. Peck- defended the inviolability of contacts

ii. Dartmouth College vs. Woodward- further expanded the contract clause of the constitution

iii. McCullough vs. Maryland- confirmed the “Implied powers” of Congress by upholding the constitutionality of the Bank of the US

iv. Gibbons vs. Ogden- the court strengthened Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce

The decisions of the Marshall Court established the primacy of the federal government over the states in regulating the economy and opened the way for an increased federal role in promoting economic growth.

The “Tariff of Abominations” was a new tariff on imported goods. It originated with demands of Massachusetts and Rhode Island woolen manufacturers, who complained that the British were dumping textiles on the American market at artificially low prices. In order to get the middle and western support, the government decided they had to make all imports more expensive than American goods.

John C. Calhoun argued that since the federal government was a creation of the states, the states were the final arbiters of the constitutionality of federal laws. He therefore had his theory of Nullification. 1832 was the Nullification Crisis. South Carolinians responded angrily to a congressional tariff bill that offered them no relief from the 1828 “tariff of abominations”. Jackson insisted that Nullification was treason and that those implementing it were traitors. Jackson then strengthened federal forts in South Carolina and ordered a warship and several revenue ships to Charleston. Jackson proposed a force bill authorizing the president to use the military to see that the acts of congress are obeyed. South Carolina held a meeting and repealed their nullification on the tariff of abomination but nullified the Force Bill.

In the 1840’s and 1850’s most of the major magazines and newspapers were in the North, reinforcing the South’s sense of subjugation. Between the 1820’s and 1850’s, the American economy experienced the beginnings of an industrial revolution- was a result of:

v. Population growth- thru natural increase and immigration)

vi. Advances in transportation and communication

vii. New technologies

Overall the industrial revolution widened the gap between the North and the South.

David Wilmot of Pennsylvania introduced an amendment to the appropriation bill prohibiting slavery in any territory acquired from Mexico; it was called the Wilmot Proviso. It was passed in the house but not in the senate. “Popular sovereignty” – allowed people of each territory to decide the status of slavery in their own territory. This caused many issues as well.

In the Compromise of 1850, Henry Clay tried to create a compromise that let California be a free state and let Mexico do what it wanted. John C. Calhoun and Daniel Webster spoke on behalf of compromise. Congress defeated Clay’s proposal, in the interests of the National government, not thinking about the states. William H. Steward opposed the proposed compromise, he didn’t think slavery was as important as preserving the Union.

In the Crisis of the 1850’s Franklin Pierce was elected as president in 1852. The North and South continue arguing over the Fugitive Slave Act.

Pierce supported the Democratic Party called “Young America”- he saw the expansion of American democracy throughout the world as a way to divert attention from controversies over slavery. The Ostend Manifesto enraged antislavery northerners who charged administration with conspiring to bring a new slave state into the Union (buy Cuba from Spain).

The transcontinental railroad became part of the struggle between the North and the South. In 1853 Jefferson Davis sent James Gadsden to purchase a strip of land from Mexico, it was called the Gadsden Purchase. Stephen A. Douglas made a bill that allowed for the railroad to go through his section by creating Nebraska. He said slavery would be decided by “popular sovereignty” so that the south would like the bill. The South demands more and he apparently repeals the Missouri compromise and divides Nebraska again into Kansas and Nebraska, it was known as the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The results of this act were that it divided and destroyed the Whig party, and it created a new party, the Anti-Nebraska Democrats and Anti-Nebraska Whigs (the Republican Party).

Southerners made Kansas a slave state with the new “popular sovereignty” rule. A fervent abolitionist in Kansas was John Brown; he led 6 people to commit the Pottawatomie Massacre.

In the North, the proper structure of society came to center on the belief of “free soil” and “free labor”. Basically, all citizens should have all rights. In the South was a closed, static society. Slavery was never to be deleted. The North and South seemed to find their differences irreconcilable.

The final step that pushed towards the civil war was the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. The election of Lincoln became the final signal to many southerners that their position in the Union was hopeless. The North and South were now convinced that they shared no common ground. Therefore, the first state to secede, after years of pushing their rights further and further away, was South Carolina. After South Carolina, it was a domino effect of the slave states seceding and preparing for war.


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    • My Esoteric profile image

      My Esoteric 5 years ago from Keystone Heights, FL

      Great essay Jordan.

    • FitnezzJim profile image

      FitnezzJim 6 years ago from Fredericksburg, Virginia

      Paragraph three ignores the Bill of Rights, which was proposed in the first Congress as result of the compromises associated with ratification by the States of the original Constitution. The original twelve proposed amendments were whittled down to ten, and included two amendments that clearly indicated the federal powers and authority were limited to those identified in the Constitution, and that there were federal limitations with respect individual and States rights.

      Paragraph five seems to indicate a 1790's quarrel with the Republican Party, which did not exist until the 1850's. Did I misconstrue something here?

      You left out what in my mind is the one key blow to States rights, the 17th Amendment, proposed 1912 and ratified 1913. This amendment made Senators popularly elected, rather than selected by their individual State’s legislatures. Although elected to ‘represent’ their State, their allegiance shifted. They were no longer expected to be loyal to the State’s legislatures, but rather to the will of the people. The House of Representatives was originally designed as the body that would represent for the voice of the people. The 17th Amendment changed that, and eventually caused our government to evolve (devolve) to the elitist party system that we have today, where the State’s simply do not have any path (other than Judicial) for non-concurrence with federal laws that might impact the economic well-being of any given individual state.

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      Howard Schneider 6 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Excellent essay JScott. Your analysis is spot on regarding this crucial time in our country's history.