(third in a series)
I must confess that I have never quite understood the emphasis some people place on state rights as the issue that caused secession. My disbelief rests upon a very simple reason: state rights are a means to an end, not an end in itself. Debates over federalism (which is really the structural issue at the heart of this debate over political institutions) were as old as the republic itself, and various sides could use state rights or national supremacy arguments according to which one best served their interests. Thomas Jefferson was very much in favor of restricting the power of the national government in the 1790s, when he was on the outside looking in when it came to first policy (when he was secretary of state), then power (as head of the opposition). As president, he seems to have employed a far more vigorous sense of national power, especially presidential power, as the cases of the Louisiana Purchase, the Barbary Pirates, and the Embargo Act suggest.
The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 expended the bureaucracy of the federal government to enforce the fugitive slave clause and employed a process that cast aside basic civil rights. Just as northern states had earlier used state rights defenses to pass personal liberty laws, so they again looked to contest the use of federal power in resisting the Fugitive Slave Law, culminating in the Supreme Court decision of Ableman v. Booth in 1859, which struck down Wisconsin’s efforts to employ state rights defenses against the Fugitive Slave Law. John Brown’s raid that same year targeted a federal installation. That followed on the heels of an effort to enact a federal slave code for the territories, and to offer an interpretation of popular sovereignty which defined self-determination in the territories in such a way as to enhance slavery’s prospects to spread. American foreign policy had done much to obtain land that served to promote the expansion of slavery, and to fight wars to secure that same goal. In short, proslavery southerners had no problem using federal power to protect and promote slavery.