The nature of these rights and powers was hotly disputed just a few years later. In 1798, the Federalist-controlled U.S. Congress passed and the Federalist U.S. president John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts. The Federalist Party favored a strong national government, and, according to the Alien and Sedition Acts, that government was now authorized to place restrictions on immigration and penalize certain kinds of speech, in particular the kind of speech coming from newspapers supporting the opposition Democratic-Republican Party. Some editors were even jailed.
In response, Jefferson, then Adams's vice president, secretly participated in drafting the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, passed by Virginia in 1798 and Kentucky in 1799. The separate resolutions provided an early articulation of a state's right to nullify—or declare null and void—a federal law it deemed to be contrary to its own rights and interests. While the New England states officially rejected the resolutions, they were nevertheless seduced by the principles.
The Hartford Convention and the Nullification Crisis
The issue came up again during the War of 1812. A few New England Federalists who opposed the war and the administration of U.S. president James Madison, a Democratic-Republican, broke with their party and embraced states' rights. Delegations from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island met in Hartford, Connecticut, from December 1814 until January 1815 to air their complaints and even to discuss secession. Although historians disagree about how serious any of the Hartford Convention's twenty-six delegates were about secession, the public took a dim view of such talk either way. Ultimately, the United States concluded its war against Great Britain, and the Federalists met resounding defeat at the polls in 1816. The party eventually collapsed.
Jackson was even challenged within his own administration. His independent-minded vice president, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, used the crisis to articulate a constitutional framework for states' rights, forming the Nullifier Party to represent his ideas. (Not surprisingly, he resigned his office in 1832.) Jackson responded in force, asserting the power of the federal government by dispatching warships to Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. Only the Compromise Tariff of 1833, proposed by U.S. senator Henry Clay of Kentucky, managed to relieve tensions. The Whig Party was founded that same year in opposition to Jackson.
Slavery and Secession
Crisis was averted, but not for long. Two actions of the federal government enflamed the sectional crisis even further, angering abolitionists and sparking defensive reactions in the South. The Fugitive Slave Act required free states to cooperate in the capture of escaped slaves within their borders. And in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), the United States Supreme Court ruled, in part, that slavery could not be restricted in the territories. These actions represented the work of a strong federal government but, ironically, were hailed by Southerners, who abandoned their commitment to states' rights when it served their interests as slaveholders. Slavery, ultimately, was more important than states' rights. In the meantime, the sectional crisis contributed to a gradual political realignment.
Southern leaders, and especially "fire-eating" Democrats of the Deep South, worried about protecting slavery. If the federal government was seen to side against them, their response was at the ready: states' rights. Still, states' rights was only a means to an end. Slavery was always most important, a fact illustrated by the debate over popular sovereignty. The right of people in a state or territory to determine for themselves whether to allow slavery was most famously championed by U.S. senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois as part of the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854). Because it took power away from the federal government and gave it to the people, popular sovereignty seemed to jibe with the principles of states' rights, yet the fire-eaters still opposed it. They were unwilling to risk the possibility that popular sovereignty would limit the spread of slavery, preferring instead to rely on the power of the federal government.
The Civil War and After
Slavery, although largely understood to be a cause of the war, was not a compelling rallying cry because it divided whites along class lines. It was, however, useful as a metaphor for the plight of Southerners, who were imagined to be the helpless victims of a federal government now under the control of antislavery Republicans. The Staunton Spectator complained of Republican "tyrants who would enslave them," described Northerners as slaves under such a regime, and complained that the Lincoln administration, in assuming power "under the pretence [of] regard for the negro, had riveted the chains of slavery upon millions of white men." Of course, the South had once depended upon a strong federal government to protect the rights of slaveholders; now, in defense of slavery, it attacked that government as an affront to its most basic collective and individual rights.
The Lincoln administration also pushed hard against the traditional boundaries of federal authority, but it was more difficult for Davis. At times, he was hamstrung by a political culture founded on states' rights and the hedging of federal power. Davis's own vice president, Alexander Stephens of Georgia, declared many of the Confederate government's actions dangerous and unconstitutional. Joseph E. Brown of Georgia was one of several governors who vigorously objected to conscription. Instead of honoring the national draft—the first in American history—he declared one of his own for the state militia. And many Confederate citizens turned against the government, whose power they came to resent. Angry mobs freed draft evaders from jails, and committees were formed to protest impressment. Perhaps the more important point, though, is that Davis was able to consolidate so much power in his government so easily.
December 15, 1791 - Virginia becomes the final state to ratify the ten amendments to the United States Constitution, also known as the Bill of Rights. The Ninth and Tenth amendments reserve all rights not allotted to the federal government to the states or to the people, providing early support for a states' rights theories.
December 24, 1798 - The Virginia Resolutions, written by James Madison with the secret help of the U.S. vice president, Thomas Jefferson, are passed. Along with the Kentucky Resolutions, they provide an early and important articulation of states' rights.
December 15, 1814 - The Hartford Convention, a meeting of twenty-six New England members of the Federalist Party, convenes in Hartford, Connecticut. Influenced by the states' rights theories contained in the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions (1798 and 1799), the delegates protest the War of 1812 and even discuss secession.
December 28, 1832 - In the midst of the Nullification Crisis, U.S. vice president John C. Calhoun of South Carolina resigns his office. Defying the policies of U.S. president Andrew Jackson, Calhoun endorses his home state's attempt to declare null and void a federal tariff within the state. Jackson responds by sending warships to Charleston Harbor, South Carolina.
September 1850 - The Compromise of 1850 is passed in the U.S. Congress and signed into law by U.S. president Millard Fillmore. Designed to ease sectional tensions, it ends up having the opposite effect. Northern abolitionists vehemently oppose the Fugitive Slave Act, and their protests provoke a defensive reaction from proslavery Southerners.
May 30, 1854 - U.S. president Franklin Pierce signs the Kansas-Nebraska Act into law, giving settlers "popular sovereignty," or the right to decide whether their territory will be slave or free. Many slaveholders oppose the law for fear that slavery would be limited; the antislavery Republican Party is founded out of fear that it would allow for slavery's spread.
March 6, 1857 - The United States Supreme Court issues its ruling in Dred Scott v. Sandford. The decision denies Congress the authority to interfere with slavery in the territories and undermines the idea of "popular sovereignty."
December 20, 1860 - South Carolina secedes from the United States, justifying its action on the grounds of states' rights.
April 17, 1861 - Delegates at the Virginia Convention in Richmond pass an Ordinance of Secession by a vote of 88 to 55. Thirty-two of the "no" votes come from trans-Allegheny delegates, who are more firmly Unionist than representatives from other parts of the state.
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First published: July 9, 2009 | Last modified: July 2, 2014