Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Slavery and States' Rights

A very well-written historical piece here.


According to the standard version of history, states’ rights was a doctrine invented by Southern politicians to perpetuate slavery. One high school textbook, for example, describes the term “states’ rights” as an antebellum euphemism for “the right of the states to maintain slavery and the right of individuals to hold property in slaves.” In a 2011 interview on NPR, Adam Goodhart, author of 1861: The Civil War Awakening, asserted that “the only significant state right that people were arguing about in 1860 was the right to own what was known as slave property.” A 2013 New York Times op-ed declared that “since the nation’s founding, ‘states’ rights’ has been a rallying cry for those who wished to systematically disenfranchise and exploit large segments of their population.” A plaque at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery describes states’ rights as a doctrine that “protected the institution of slavery.”
This conventional history provides a handy rhetorical weapon for liberal commentators, who accuse states’ rights conservatives of embracing a doctrine historically identified with “pro-slavery ideologies and . . . the disenfranchisement of African-Americans,” as the Nation puts it. Now that the 2016 presidential campaign is getting under way—with some GOP hopefuls advocating a return to states’ rights—expect many in the media to warn us that the Tea Party is forgetting the lessons of history.
But what if the lessons of history are wrong, and the doctrine of states’ rights was actually an antislavery ideology?

No sane African-American would support the Tea Party, MSNBC host Chris Matthews said in 2013, because it is “a group that is basically pro-states’ rights.” Yet contrary to many such arguments you hear today, the Civil War was not sparked by federal efforts to abolish slavery: there were no such efforts before the South seceded. The war arose from Northern assertions of states’ rights and from the South’s frustration at the federal government’s failure to rein in those assertions. After the war, however, it became irresistible for federal politicians—eager to justify an expanded role for the national government—to associate states’ rights with the Confederacy and, therefore, slavery. By 1909, progressive journalist Herbert Croly could assert—with little fear of contradiction—that the growth of federal power since Reconstruction had been necessary to slay “the double-headed problem of slavery and states’ rights.” The rest is history—sort of.

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