Forrest McDonald, States’ Rights and the Union, 1776-1876: Imperium in Imperio. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2000, 2002. pp. viii, 296. $29.95, $16.95 paperback
It’s easy enough to dismiss states’ rights as a perverse idea associated with the South and slavery and racism and secessionism. George C. Wallace, “Bloody Sunday,” the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, and the KKK are
reminders of the dark side of a constitutional philosophy. Then again “nationalism” has not been the more perfect alternative either as witnessed by the American Civil War, the conquest of the West, Plessy vs. Ferguson, the Spanish
American War, Brownsville, Vietnam, and more.
Putting things into a more balanced historical and interpretative perspective is the purpose of States Rights’ and the Union authored by the master historian Forrest McDonald (now retired from the University of Alabama) who brings to bear all of his knowledge and expertise gained over a long and productive career of studying American history from
the founding of the republic through the 20th century (his overlooked Insull remains a neglected tour de force). Besides being the absolute right choice to pen this particular book, McDonald accomplishes the purpose of the publisher in providing the general public with an inexpensive and brief survey of a subject that is not only central to the early American history but continues to be relevant today and controversial.
As Prof. McDonald correctly reminds us, states’ rights were coequal with American independence in 1776 and as such were viewed as essential to the preservation of liberty (defined in 18th century terms). Indeed, viewed historically and from its origins in our colonial history, states’ rights were the natural and logical outgrowth of the relationship between the British Empire and its North American colonies. It was about the all-important question of imperium in imperio.
Could sovereignty be divided or not (thus the book’s subtitle)? The British said no (to George III military blows had to decide the contest or else there was no Empire) and the result was the unanimous Declaration of Independence by the united colonies on July 4 (following a 7-2 vote in the Continental Congress on July 2). For the new republic, however, the question of imperium in imperio remained: What kind of government would there be in America? What about the states? What role would they have?
One thing was certain. Unlike the British, there would be no ONE government for all of America. Not only would it be republican (without a king), it would also be federal and based on the states not as sovereign and independent entities as tried under the Articles of Confederation from 1781-1787 but as critical components of modern federalism. Besides being the foundation of the American extended republic and the watch-dogs over local concerns, the states
with their reserved powers became yet another check on the national government. Thus the Bill of Rights including the Tenth Amendment all insisted upon by the anti-Federalists (the real framers of our federal republic) rather than the Federalists.
If States’ Rights and the Union dwells too much on the period 1776-1788, it does so to clarify the great issue of the nature of the union that would bedevil the American republic until the American Civil War (of Northern origins). In sum, there was no ambiguity here. The South (along with the old North) was right all along. War came, in other words, because of Lincoln’s and the new Republican party’s 19th century Romantic notion of the union as absolute that permitted no acquiesence in peaceful secession. To quote McDonald here (p. 8), “this ‘nationalist’ interpretation. . .is untenable.” As for black freedom, it did not fully materialize not only because of states’ rights but because the
post-1865 Supreme Court and its Northern justices invoked the new economic theory of laissez-faire to prevent state regulation of business and railroads. Ironically, the Fourteenth Amendment was applied to corporations who
mysteriously became defined as “persons.”
Just as states’ rights, North and South, persisted in the old Democratic party of 1866-1932, it lived on in Southern conservatives opposed to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Dixiecrats who opposed Harry Truman’s Fair Deal, and the opposition to Brown vs. Board of Education, the activist Supreme Court of Earl Warren, and the Great Society of Lyndon B. Johnson. As in the past, states’ rights exhibited its national appeal with the presidential campaigns of George C. Wallace who garnered significant Northern support. Reviled at the time as racists (and some were indeed Klansmen) and fascists (like those of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission), more moderate types became the foundation of the modern Conservative movement that helped the revival of the Republican party in the 1980’s and 1990’s under Ronald Reagan and George Bush. This flip-flop from shame to respectability is yet another chapter in the history of an idea that is not totally peculiar or perverse but a reminder of our original intentions.