States' Rights

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States' Rights

A doctrine and strategy in which the rights of the individual states are protected by the U.S. Constitution from interference by the federal government.

The history of the United States has been marked by conflict over the proper allocation of power between the states and the federal government. The federal system of government established by the U.S. Constitution recognized the sovereignty of both the state governments and the federal government by giving them mutually exclusive powers as well as concurrent powers. In the first half of the nineteenth century, arguments over states' rights arose in the context of Slavery. From the 1870s to the 1930s, economic issues shaped the debate. In the 1950s racial Segregation and the Civil Rights Movement renewed the issue of state power. By the 1970s economic and political conservatives had begun to call for a reduction in the power and control of the federal government and for the redistribution of responsibilities to the states.

At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, delegates represented state governments that had become autonomous centers of power. The Constitution avoided a precise definition of the locus of sovereignty, leaving people to infer that the new charter created a divided structure in which powers were allocated between the central government and the states in such a way that each would be supreme in certain areas.

Nevertheless, defenders of states' rights were concerned that a powerful, consolidated national government would run roughshod over the states. With ratification of the Constitution in doubt, the Framers promised to add protection for the states. Accordingly, the Tenth Amendment was added to the Constitution as part of the Bill of Rights. The amendment stipulates that "powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." This amendment became the constitutional foundation for those who wish to promote the rights and powers of the states vis-à-vis the federal government.

In the early years of the Republic, states' rights were vigorously protected. An early argument involved whether or not states were subject to the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court and the federal government. In chisholm v. georgia, 2 U.S. (2 Dall.) 419, 1 L. Ed. 440 (1793), a South Carolina businessman sued the state of Georgia in order to collect for payment of supplies. The state of Georgia maintained that it was a sovereign body, and so could not be sued since it was not subject to the authority of federal courts. The Supreme Court dismissed this argument and ruled that the conduct of the states was subject to Judicial Review. In response, states' rights advocates pushed for passage of the Eleventh Amendment, which limits the rights of persons to sue a state in federal court.

In 1798, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison proposed the Virginia and Kentucky Resolves to clarify the role of states in checking the powers of the federal government. The resolutions were in response to passage of the alien enemies and sedition acts of 1798 (1 Stat. 570, 1 Stat. 596), which restricted a number of personal liberties. In proposing the Virginia and Kentucky Resolves of 1798, Jefferson argued that the "sovereign and independent states" had the right to "interpose" themselves between their citizens and improper national legislative actions and to "nullify" acts of Congress they deemed unconstitutional. The resolutions started the seed of the doctrines of nullification and interposition, later employed by New England states during the War of 1812, and by South Carolina in opposing federal tariff legislation in 1832.

From the early 1800s until the end of the Civil War in 1865, states' rights played a major role in the U.S. political process. The doctrine was most fully articulated in the writings of South Carolina statesman and political theorist john c. calhoun. Calhoun contended that if acts of the federal government ran contrary to state or local interests, then states had the right to nullify said acts. Calhoun further proposed that states had the right to dissolve their contractual relationship with the federal government rather than submit to policies they saw as destructive to their local self-interests. Followers of Calhoun linked states' rights to slavery, and thus, protecting slavery became the equivalent of protecting regional Southern interests. In 1860, seven Southern states seceded from the Union to form the Confederate States of America. The constitution of the Confederacy began, "We, the people of the Confederate States, each State acting in its own sovereign and independent character …."

Northern leaders were also prepared to manipulate the concept of states' rights. As early as the 1820s, Northern legislatures enacted personal liberty laws as devices to block the enforcement of the federal fugitive slave law. Such laws were struck down by the Supreme Court in prigg v. pennsylvania, 41 U.S. (16 Pet.) 539, 10 L. Ed. 1060 (1842). However, when Congress enacted the more stringent Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Northerners responded by again creating personal liberty laws in general defiance of federal fugitive slave policy.

The defeat of the South in the Civil War ended the dispute, and Congress enacted the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, in part, to prevent states from denying certain basic rights to U.S. citizens. Although the Supreme Court substantially restricted the power of these amendments during the late nineteenth century, it did so indirectly, relying on states' rights arguments to justify its actions. The judicial philosophy of the times was also marked by laissez-faire capitalism. Thus, the Court would invoke the Tenth Amendment to strike down federal laws that were characterized as hostile to state interests and then use the Fourteenth Amendment to strike down state legislation that sought to regulate business, labor, and the economy.

This trend continued into the twentieth century. Until the 1930s, the Court frequently used the Tenth Amendment as a device for striking down federal measures, from Child Labor Laws to major pieces of President franklin d. roosevelt's New Deal legislation. Hundreds of state regulatory statutes were also overturned. Only when the states sought to restrict unions or control dissenters did the Court sustain these efforts.

By the late 1930s, however, New Deal policies had dramatically increased the size and power of the federal government. Proponents of states' rights argued against extensive use of the Commerce Clause, which gave the federal government the power to regulate interstate commerce, and the federal government's power to tax for the General Welfare. Given the desperate economic situation, such arguments fell on deaf ears. By the end of World War II, centralized authority rested with the federal government.

States' rights were revived in the late 1940s over the matter of race. In the 1948 election, Democrat Harry S. Truman pushed for a more aggressive Civil Rights policy. Southern opponents, known as the "Dixiecrats," bolted the Democratic Party and ran their own candidate, J. strom thurmond. Their "states' rights" platform called for continued racial segregation and denounced proposals for national action on behalf of civil rights.

Desegregation efforts of the 1950s and 1960s, including the Supreme Court's decision in brown v. board of education of topeka, kansas, 347 U.S. 483, 74 S. Ct. 686, 98 L. Ed. 873 (1954), which ruled that racially segregated public schools were unconstitutional, also met with Southern resistance. Segregationists again argued for state sovereignty, and developed programs of massive resistance to racial Integration in public education, public facilities, housing, and access to jobs.

Beginning in the 1960s, other states' rights proponents started stressing the need for local control of government. One reason was the introduction of federal Welfare and subsidy programs. The concern was that along with federal money would come federal control.

By the end of the twentieth century, a number of efforts were being made to curtail the broad power of the federal government. For example, in National League of Cities v. Usery, 426 U.S. 833, 96 S. Ct. 2465, 49 L. Ed. 2d 245 (1976), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Congress had exceeded its power to regulate interstate commerce when it extended federal Minimum Wage and overtime standards to state and local governments. Determination of state government employees' wages and hours is one of the "attributes of sovereignty attaching to every state government," attributes that "may not be impaired by Congress." Less than ten years later, however, the Court overruled National League in Garcia v. San Antonio Metropolitan Transit Authority, 469 U.S. 528, 105 S. Ct. 1005, 83 L. Ed. 2d 1016 (1985). Nevertheless, the 5–4 majority in Garcia and the Court's difficulty in articulating a coherent Tenth Amendment Jurisprudence have left this area of states' rights muddled.

The 1980s saw a major shift in government policy. President ronald reagan agreed with the public that the federal government was becoming too involved in state government affairs. As a result, a major focus of his administration was to reduce the size and power of the federal government. States were given more authority to experiment with policy initiatives, especially social programs, which had previously been directed from Washington. Subsequent administrations followed suit. In the early 2000s, however, political analysts commented that a new trend was afoot: both Republicans and Democrats were pushing for federal laws that would preempt state laws, especially state laws that attempted to regulate financial corporations and other types of business.

Further readings

Drake, Frederick D., and Lynn R. Nelson. 1999. States' Rights and American Federalism: A Documentary History. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.

Knowles, Robert. 2003. "The Balance of Forces and the Empire of Liberty: States' Rights and the Louisiana Purchase." Iowa Law Review 88 (January).

Mason, Alpheus Thomas. 1972. The States Rights Debate: Antifederalism and the Constitution. 2d ed. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

McDonald, Forrest. 2000. States' Rights and the Union: Imperium in Imperio, 1776–1876. Lawrence: Univ. Press of Kansas.

Richey, Warren. 2002. "Terror Could Tilt High Court on States' Rights." Christian Science Monitor (February 11).

Sample, James J. 2003. "The Sentences that Bind." Columbia Law Review 103 (May).


Federalism; Fifteenth Amendment; Fourteenth Amendment; Kentucky Resolutions.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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