States' Rights and the Civil War

A True Turning Point

Was the “War Between the States” the end of true federalism? Stay tuned to BreakPoint, as we wrap up our look at the Civil War.

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Chuck  Colson

For the past two days, we’ve been talking about the Civl War and slavery. But to say that the war was solely caused by, or was all about, slavery would be inaccurate. There was also a profound disagreement between North and South about where states’ rights began, and where they ended.

There should be no doubt in any Christian’s mind that the South was wrong on slavery. No proper understanding of Scripture -- especially Genesis chapter 1, where we learn that all men are created in the image of God -- could allow us to sanction the buying and selling of human beings as property.

Nonetheless, many Southerners of the time were honestly, conscientiously, and prudentially defending states’ rights and federalism. Remember, at the time, many Americans felt themselves to be New Yorkers or Virginians first, Americans second. The nation was viewed by most as a union of sovereign states, which is why people said, “The United States ARE,” as opposed to “the United States IS.”

And Southern threats of secession were not unique in American history. Those of you who paid attention in history class will remember that in 1832, President Andrew Jackson was prepared to use force against South Carolina when that state nullified federal tariffs on imported goods. And before that, many New Englanders considered secession as the nation engaged in the War of 1812.

Sadly, by 1861, the Southern states were invoking a legitimate political position, but in defense of a great moral evil. And, sadly still, the same states’ rights argument was used for the next 100 years to prop up Jim Crow laws and deny full civil rights to African Americans.

Nonetheless, as Christians, we then, and do now, have a legitimate interest in limiting the power of an overly powerful federal government. We know, given man’s fallen nature, that concentrating too much power in one place is an invitation to tyranny.

So, we ought to agree that the South had a legitimate position on this point. The idea of a limited central government, after all, owes much to the Christian doctrines of “subsidiarity” and “sphere sovereignty.” Both protect the roles of family, churches, and private associations in society and assert that governance is to be managed closest to the people. That is specifically why John Calvin favored a republican form of government.

But look where we find ourselves today: As a colleague of mine commented, the once-sovereign states have been reduced to little more than counties. Otherwise, how is it that 31 states of the union have declared that marriage is to be reserved to one man and one woman, and yet, in an instant, the federal judiciary can make so-called same-sex “marriage” the law of the land?

Or take health care. Instead of a “one-size-fits-all” approach, might we not prefer to the federal government make block grants for the states to determine which system or systems work best for them? Vermont is on the verge of a single-payer health care system. Well, bully for Vermont. So long as the other states can adopt their own approaches as best fit the needs of their citizens.

The Civil War was a turning point for America. The slaves were freed, the Union was preserved. And it’s a fair question to ask if the conflict that began at Fort Sumter 150 years ago might also have been the beginning of the end of a truly federal form of government. Let’s hope there’s still time to preserve the legitimate position of the South.

Further Reading and Information

Two-Minute Warning: Memorial Day and the Civil War
Chuck Colson | The Colson Center | May 25, 2011

American Federalism and the Civil War
Ludwig von Mises Institute | March 29, 2010

This Week on BreakPoint: Christianity and the Civil War (Complete List of Resources)
Th Point Blog | May 25, 2011


Does the Constitution still apply?
The U. S. Constitution has been ignored or disregarded many times over the history of this country. Debasing the power of the states is nothing new and frankly at this point irreversible. Article IV section 3 declares that no state can be formed from the territory of another state, yet that is exactly what was done with the creation of West Virginia. That precedent is set.
The deconstruction of the country as founded is on-going. The current administration can be noted for the stated opinion of the President that in his view the Constitution is "mainly negative." His complaintis that it restricts the power of government. This is power he desires to wield without that restraint.
Given the propensity of the Supreme Court to either ignore or decide badly on balance of power cases, there is little hope of rebalance from that quarter.
Only a long string of elections in which a pro-Constitution majority is elected in both houses of Congress along with a correction in the executive can give the country the time to rebalance the courts and legislation.
Might it be that this nation is now seeing the judgement of God as Israel did when disobedience was the rule?
The toll of abortion will count, today or tomorrow. Is that all that we have to answer for?
States' Rights and the Civil War
As a committed believer in the Bible, an attorney, and a believer in an original understanding of the Constitution, I must take issue with Chuck Colson's commentary on States' Rights and the Civil War. I see two flaws in the argument. The first is a Constitutional criticism, the second is a practical and historical criticism.
When the 13 Colonies ratified the Constitution the agreed that they were giving up a certain amount of state sovereignty in exchange for a federal union with the advantages of national defense, assumption of war debt, a common currency and a variety of other things. To be sure, the Founding Fathers created a federal government of limited powers but such actions as secession, the nullification of tariffs by a single state or group of states, was not contemplated in the Constitution. South Carolina sought to nullify a federal tariff in 1832 and President Jackson correctly responded by telling the South Carolinians that the tariff was the law of the land and he would enforce it everywhere.
Under the Articles of Confederation, which pre-dated the Constitution, states retained a good deal of freedom and independence. The Articles of Confederation also proved unworkable, and eventually would probably have invited invasion of America by Europe.
A great challenge that arose at the time of the Civil War was that the South in 1861 more closely resembled the more agrarian society of the America of 1787, and the North was clearly changing more culturally and economically, but from a legal perspective, there were certain majoritarian principles in the Constitution that permitted the Federal Government to pass anti-slavery legislation or tariffs that a minority of the states would not agree with.
I think if secession and nullification were properly apart of states' rights as contemplated by the Constitution, there would be a suggestion of it in the text of the Constitution or in the Federalist Papers which offers insight into the Constitution.

The US Supreme Court has actually taken much more action over the course of its history in robbing the states of their sovereignty than Lincoln or Congress did in 1861. A number of cases come to mind going back to the 19th Century, but Roe v. Wade is a prime example of the US Supreme Court usurping the legitimate power of the states to regulate such items as abortion. The US Supreme Court has also erroneously expanded the power of Congress by improperly interpreting the Commerce Clause, and in doing so has taken huge bites out of state sovereignty.
My second complaint with Mr. Colson's commentary on the Civil War is that I don't think one can ever attempt to justify the position of the South in 1861 without going down the slippery slope toward condoning slavery in at least a tangential way.
When I was a little boy growing up in Illinois, I was taught that the Civil War was about slavery. From probably the age of 14 on, educators told me the Civil War really wasn't about slavery.
Finally, after much self-study and reflection, I now think my First Grade teacher was exactly correct that the Civil War was fought over slavery. It is so simplistic. In the election of 1860, Abraham Lincoln, was elected President, and as a result, southern states, starting with South Carolina, began to secede from the Union. Why? Because Lincoln was committed to prevent the expansion of slavery. It was not his taste for tariffs or federal projects. It was because he considered slavery to be evil. The South did not want to lose their property rights in slave holding. Plain and simple. Slavery is a wicked and anti-biblical institution, and the South was completely wrong in its unwillingness to abandon slavery, and in seceding from the Union in its attempt to hold on to the "peculiar institution.". When the South attacked Fort Sumter, it did so in defense of slavery. Written by Todd S. Handelman.