The Confederacy and State Rights

One of the arguments one always hears is that the southern states seceded to protect state rights … sometimes as a way to counter claims that white southerners seceded to protect slavery.  Anyone familiar with American history knows that white southerners were far more consistent in their protection of slavery than state rights, and that they had no problem violating state rights in their efforts to protect slavery, a clear recognition of the relationship of means (which might, or might not, include state rights) and ends (the protection of slavery).

Once the Confederacy was established, however, it soon found its commitment to state rights challenged by war.  Several state governors challenged the actions of the Richmond authorities: among those who did so were Georgia’s Joseph E. Brown and North Carolina’s Zebulon Vance.  Other southern politicians promised to go even further in their advocacy of state interest, including North Carolina’s William W. Holden.  It is worthy of note that the states where resistance to Confederate central authority was most pronounced were in the heartland of the Confederacy and until 1864 found themselves relatively untouched by war, at least so far as the state’s interior was concerned (there were coastal actions in North Carolina and Georgia).

The power of the Richmond government was evident in other measures that bore directly upon the civil liberties of individual white southerners.  While the Richmond authorities sought a different path looking toward the suspension of habeas corpus, nevertheless Jefferson Davis did suspend the writ at times.  The adoption of conscription in 1862 was another example where the central government reached out and touched the lives of individual southerners.

Historians have offered different approaches to state rights and the Confederate experience.  Some historians argued that the Confederacy’s headstone should read “Died of States Rights.”  Others point out that the actions of the Richmond government droves some people away, and that it was violating those principles upon which it was reportedly founded.  A few dissenting voices have found a silver lining in all this, claiming that decentralization actually bolstered Confederate chances, offering some more flexible responses on a state-by-state basis.  However one comes down on these issues, the fact remains that in acting as it did, usually out of necessity, the Richmond government undertook measures that challenged state rights and sparked opposition.  Some people began to wonder whether being ruled by Richmond was all that different than being ruled from Washington.  That line of criticism in turned called into question the notion that the Confederacy protected the state rights it was supposedly designed to protect.

Certainly the Confederate commitment to state rights in terms of minority rights did not extend to those parts of the Confederacy that opposed the notion of the Confederacy altogether.  While critics of Lincoln argue that the sixteenth president was hypocritical in providing for the establishment of West Virginia, they remain silent on the Davis regime’s refusal to allow that secession to occur.  Confederates moved quickly to quash resistance movements in western North Carolina and East Tennessee.  Apparently a commitment to minority rights in the Confederacy was carefully qualified. Davis also opposed the efforts of Brown and Vance, seeing them as thorns inn his side.

What noteworthy about this argument, of course, is that as it is often presented, it blurs notions of state rights, state sovereignty, federalism, civil liberties, and the limited powers of the central government.  That is, while the confrontations between Davis and several governors fits rather easily into this format, other examples fit more readily into the notion of limited central government, minority rights, dissent, and individual rights.  Nevertheless, the necessities of war placed great strain upon notion of state rights within the Confederacy, and the conduct of the war meant that the Richmond government often looked as it it had simple taken the place of the Washington government.  By the latter stages of the war it was a good question as to whether a state founded upon the principle of state rights, in its struggle for survival, had placed that principle in jeopardy.

What do you think?

11 thoughts on “The Confederacy and State Rights

  1. Matt McKeon March 27, 2011 / 5:21 am

    Fighting a big war effectively tends to centralize authority in the executive branch. When has this not been so? The Confederacy was a fairly centralized and powerful federal state. Would they have been different in peace time? Certainly less centralized than the war time government.

    A glance at prewar Southern politics show the tendency to disregard “states’ rights” or any other kind of rights, when it came to protect slavery. Lip service to states’ rights then, except in the case of slavery.

  2. Lyle Smith March 27, 2011 / 7:44 am

    The Confederacy has always has reminded me a bit of the Articles of Confederation. Too much power to the states and you get a superfluous and useless national government. This wasn’t the case with the Confederacy though. The Confederate constitution wasn’t nearly as poor a document as the Articles of Confederation, because it wasn’t totally useless (Richmond did pass a national conscription law and myriad other effective laws), but the states did have enough power to thwart and/or distort parts of the national regime (like holding back resources needed for the Confederate military, etc.).

    So, yes, states rights views, like those held by the governor of Georgia, were put in jeopardy by the war itself.

    • Lyle Smith March 27, 2011 / 7:47 am

      … as had happened under the Articles of Confederation.

  3. Margaret D. Blough March 27, 2011 / 11:57 am

    The secessionist forces made it clear that their support for states’ rights was, at best, limited and, at worst, fraudulent and/or hypocritical. Look in the various declarations of causes accompanying secession ordinances: many of the grievances were not directed at actions by the federal government or that were even within the powers of the federal government: they were directed at free state policy on matters that, especially pre-14th amendment, were totally issues of state law: such as who could vote and have other civil rights within the state and the provisions under state constitutions and/or law regarding speech, press, assembly, and petitioning the government for the redress of grievance. It was slave state demands on those issues that turned many Northern whites against them; denying blacks their rights were one thing but when slave state demands for protection for slavery began to impinge on the rights of free state whites, that was something else entirely.

  4. Commodore Perry March 27, 2011 / 2:27 pm

    I think this will always be a tough one to sort out because the Confederacy existed almost exclusively in a state of war. Many political lines become ambiguous during wartime, and I don’t know if we can ever really judge the success or failure of this aspect of Confederate idealism.

    As for whether it was all about the means or the ends, I would say it depends on the smaller person or polity in question. There were clearly issues of Southerners and Southern states over the course of antebellum history using states’ rights as a means to their ends, but there were also many who earnestly believed in the principle (it not being mutually exclusive with slavery’s protection), and I actually think that the SC Declaration of Causes is a great example of states’ rights as both a means and an end. But SC was not the Richmond government, and the CSA Constitution, as we know, went on to both grant and revoke state rights.

  5. Ray O'Hara March 27, 2011 / 6:19 pm

    Davis wished he had more power, throughout the war Governors like NC’s Brown were a thorn and withheld resources for home defense Richmond could have profitably used. “States Rights” then {as now} makes a great slogan but it’s an anchor holding down any effective government

  6. Charles Lovejoy March 28, 2011 / 6:36 am

    I tend to be cynical of politics both current and historical, even in my beloved south. When I take a historical look at my state Georgia, secession, the Confederacy and states rights I see those like TRR Cobb ,Robert Toombs and other politicians becoming consumed by their own rhetoric and political ambitions. Once secession started gaining momentum, in my view it was more about politicians and their grab for power than it was about states rights or slavery.

  7. Frank Blissett September 13, 2016 / 12:41 am

    “…By the latter stages of the war it was a good question as to whether a state founded upon the principle of state rights, in its struggle for survival, had placed that principle in jeopardy….”

    What do I think? I think the article is well thought out, but misses one big point – namely, that the Confederacy was founded due to southern federalist sentiments in opposition to northern states-rights arguments. They were pretty up front that the northern states’ anti-slavery laws risked de-facto nullification of the Fugitive Slave Act.

  8. Ken December 20, 2017 / 5:34 pm

    The Second Battle of Manassas is a good example of the lack of war power Jefferson Davis had verses the state’s governors …if Lee had the Georgia militia at the battle, he could have finished Pope off; but, typically Lee never had the reserves to finish the job.

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