VI.3: National versus State Sovereignty

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National versus State Sovereignty

The American Civil War was not just about slavery, though that was the hot-button issue.

The bigger issue in that war was national versus state sovereignty or power. That included a state’s right to allow slavery. And while it’s true that most southerners believed slavery was necessary for their economy, many wanted it slowly abolished. You might be surprised to learn that Robert E. Lee, who would become the Confederate commanding general, wrote:

In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country. … Their emancipation will sooner result from the mild & melting influence of Christianity, than the storms & tempests of fiery Controversy. This influence though slow, is sure. The doctrines & miracles of our Saviour have required nearly two thousand years, to Convert but a small part of the human race, & even among Christian nations, what gross errors still exist! … [T]he Abolitionist … must See that he has neither the right or power of operating except by moral means & [per]suasion…. (Lee 1856)

Lee did not accept the position of Confederate general to defend slavery. He did it to defend Virginia from economic oppression by the northern states. Those states were the majority in Congress, and they used that power to take economic advantage of the south through a tariff on foreign goods. The tariff allowed northern manufacturers to sell their own products at the same prices without having to pay the tariff. Many northerners became rich selling their overpriced manufactured products to southerners. But southerners’ cotton and other agricultural products did not have that advantage.

The Civil War was about national versus state sovereignty. That is, should the power to make final decisions for society belong to the nation or to the states?

It was obviously hypocritical for southerners to complain about minority oppression by northern states while at the same time holding black people as slaves. While that is true, it is irrelevant to the point here.

The point is that the northern states wanted more national sovereignty (the Union), and the southern states wanted more state sovereignty. In fact, that was the biggest difference between the constitution created by the Confederate States of America and the U.S. Constitution. That is, the confederate constitution gave more power to the states and less to the confederate nation.

One argument for national supremacy was that in 1776, under the Articles of Confederation, the states were supreme over the Union. And through non-cooperation they nearly destroyed the Union. Many believed that a strong national government was necessary to prevent the states from being swallowed up by the European powers: England, France, and Spain. So in 1787, our founders created the U.S. Constitution to save the Union by reversing the roles. That is, the document created a national government that was supreme over the states. But debates continued until the Civil War and to a lesser extent even afterwards.

Slavery is oppression of a minority by a majority.

The issue of slavery points to another argument for national supremacy. In an earlier post, I showed that James Madison discovered that minority oppression was easier to prevent in a larger population. That means slavery could be abolished easier at the national level than separately in the states. But the northern states originally held slaves just like the south. They only turned against slavery when it was no longer convenient, after their economy changed from agriculture to manufacturing. Would a majority of northerners have pushed to abolish slavery if they had remained agricultural?

Let’s look at an even greater example of minority oppression – the almost complete genocide of the Native Americans. Both north and south were guilty there, implying that Madison’s principle didn’t work. In the earlier post linked above, I showed that Madison’s principle can’t actually prevent oppression. Our modern communications and our two-party system have limited the effect of our large population on that principle. So that argument for national supremacy is weak.

In the debates regarding national versus state sovereignty, there are numerous arguments for state sovereignty.

There are reasons to allow states to make final decisions within their own borders, without national interference. For example, states have different cultural, ethnic, philosophical and religious views and habits. And they differ as well in their access to resources such as oceans, rivers, lakes, aquifers, forests, mineral deposits, and arable or pastoral lands. Obviously, the people within a state have a better idea of what is best for them than someone far away.

Another argument is that state sovereignty allows states to experiment and copy each other’s best efforts. Conversely, national supremacy only forces sterile one size fits all solutions on everybody.

Do we have only two choices or do we have infinite choices? Do we have to choose between: (1) state supremacy, which nearly destroyed America under the Articles of Confederation, and (2) national supremacy, which produced today’s overblown and overbearing national government? Or are there other choices?

It is not possible to precisely match the power of two governments. So we cannot have two equal supreme sovereigns without one eventually overpowering the other. But I can show that there is a better way to get the best of both national and state sovereignty at the same time. Would you believe that’s possible? Can you think of a way to do it?

This site is for discussing how to improve our political system. It is NOT for discussing party politics or political figures. So if you have a non-partisan question or comment, feel free to leave it below.

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Lee, Robert E. 1856. Letter to his wife on Dec. 27. (Accessed 03/13/21)

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