The term “states’ rights” is a loaded one in our country’s history. It goes back most immediately before the Civil War, when South Carolina rebelled against the high tariffs imposed by President Andrew Jackson in the early 1830’s. The flames of secession were fanned in the following years by the southern agrarian states’ resentment of what they perceived as the unfair advantage the more industrialized northern states.
That the South’s agriculture relied on the moral horror of slave labor was bound to end in some severe conflict. As the Abolitionist movement grew in the north and spread to the territories, war grew more likely.
There are still historians who argue that the conflict need never have come to actual secession and war, but they did, egged on by the conservative tendencies of the South, who maintained the courtly Cavalier traditions of England’s royalists.
Leaving New York’s origins aside, the northern states of the US were founded in part by England’s puritans, seeking religious freedom. The South was founded in Virginia as a money-making endeavor; it maintained close ties to England, including the formation of the Church of England in Virginia, later to be the Church of Virginia and even later to become the Episcopal Church of the USA.
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[ECUSA still sends delegates to the Lambeth Conference, in Britain, called by the Archbishop of Canterbury. In an ironic historical turn, it is the black bishops of Africa who have become the conservative block against the ever-more liberal British faction. These African bishops, in a kind of ecclesiological and historical mobius strip, are now sending missionaries to the Episcopal church, at least in present-day Virginia.]
In fact, England itself – before it outlawed slavery – insisted that the Virginia colony take slaves from England’s ships in order to facilitate the growth of the tobacco plantations. The mother country wanted tobacco and cotton and pushed for those staples from the Virginia colony. Thus, in the differing origins from English stock were the seeds of the War Between the States planted very early on, long before the idea of independence from England had even been conceived.
Eventually, as America wrested its freedom from England and hammered out a federal project consisting of the thirteen colonies, it never settled the issue of slavery. In order to bind the states in a fragile common cause against mother England, the Founders put the problem of slavery aside for later generations to address. Had they not done so, the federation would have foundered on the rocks of the very great differences among those thirteen colonies.
In other words, they kicked the can down the road – much as the federal government is doing today with its swollen stimulus package being forced upon the states. In the first instance, that can came to rest, finally, in South Carolina’s attempted rebellion against the punishing tariffs its agricultural products. President Jackson successfully squelched the rebellion. Thirty years later, after growing acrimony in the southern states, war finally broke out officially at Fort Sumter, South Carolina.
In subsequent generations, as the Civil War has been fought and re-fought, the issue of states rights’ has been paramount. During the Civil Rights rebellion, the North used the phrase as code for bigotry against equality for the descendants of the slaves freed by The War. The South, still sullen from the poverty inflicted upon it by the draconian measures of Reconstruction, never accepted the growing ascendancy of Washington vs. the rights of the states as defined by the Constitution in the Tenth Amendment.
What changed things? To me, the advent of air-conditioning was the key to the emergence of the South from its doldrums. Air conditioning made the deep South a livable environment. The poverty and fierce independence of the South (no unions!) made it attractive to Northern manufacturers who gradually moved down, leaving New England towns much diminished.
Yet “states’ rights” has remained a loaded term for keeping black people down. For some southerners this may yet be the case, but for many citizens in the urban south (really only first or second generation removals from Yankee land), the idea harks back to its original meaning: that the infringement of the federal government is to be limited by the tenth amendment of the Constitution.
Thirty-three of our fifty states are considering or have considered resolutions affirming the Tenth Amendment. This is not simply a movement among the “red states” to reign in the hubris of Washington. These states span the spectrum of political philosophies. What they share is the growing realization that the Federal Government giveth and the Federal taketh away, but mostly it taketh. In order to sustain a swollen national bureaucracy, the Feds demand ever more.
Perhaps the most odious burden is the “unfunded mandates”. As long as inflation was low and jobs were plentiful, people were willing to look past this unlawful intrusion into the states’ business. Now, however, the future looks ominous. And for state legislatures, the unfunded mandates have become as noxious a burden as once the rapacious demands of England were to the American colonies.
As history repeats itself, the Federal Government is no more likely to act judiciously toward its people than England was willing to do when it came to the colonies.
Notice that in both cases, it comes down to money, to the unfair burden of taxation. Notice in both cases that the people’s unhappiness was then, and is today, being “spun” as disloyalty.
Next: the Tea Parties