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?