VI.2: States’ Rights and National Supremacy

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States’ Rights and National Supremacy

The northern and southern states fought the Civil War over states’ rights.

States’ rights and national supremacy involve the sovereignty of individual states within their own boundaries. The opposite point of view is that only the national government is truly sovereign, so it can override state decisions. The most volatile issue at the time of the Civil War was of course the atrocious right of a state to allow slavery. That issue would not even be debatable today.

But there were other states’ rights issues involved that are still debatable. For example, should a state have control over roads, bridges, and other improvements within it’s boundaries? Or should the national government be able to override its decisions in such matters?

An even more important issue at that time was a tariff charged on manufactured goods coming from foreign nations. This tariff allowed northern manufacturers to sell their own goods at higher prices. That is, they could match the prices of foreign goods, increasing their profits. Southerners didn’t have any real manufacturing at all as their economy was entirely agricultural, based mostly on cotton. So, southerners had to pay the higher prices for manufactured goods, but could only sell their cotton at low prices.

The southern states had lower populations than the northern ones, so they were in the minority in the national House of Representatives.

Southerners couldn’t get the northern state representatives to make the tariff work equally for all states. Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America, described the unfairness of the situation:

The people of the Southern States, whose almost exclusive occupation was agriculture, early perceived a tendency in the Northern States to render the common government subservient to their own purposes by imposing burdens on commerce as a protection to their manufacturing and shipping interests. (Davis 1861)

Arguments over differences between northern and southern commercial interests did not begin with the Civil War, but were going strong even as the U.S. Constitution was being written about 70 years earlier. James Madison had more influence over the wording of the constitution than anyone. And this was his view of the division of supremacy between the state and national governments:

[Supremacy] … is vested partly in the [national] and partly in the [state] legislatures. …[T]he local [state] … authorities … [are] no more subject, within their respective spheres, to the general [national] authority, than the general authority is subject to them, within its own sphere. … It is true that in controversies relating to the boundary between the two jurisdictions, the tribunal [Supreme Court] which is ultimately to decide, is to be established under the general government. But this does not change the principle of the case. The decision is to be impartially made, according to the rules of the Constitution; and all the usual and most effectual precautions are taken to secure this impartiality. (Madison 1787-1788, 39)

So Madison’s view of states’ rights and national supremacy is that the state and national governments are each perfectly sovereign in their own “spheres” of jurisdiction.

According to Madison, the national government cannot impose itself upon state issues any more than a state can impose itself upon national issues. But who decides if an issue is a state issue or a national issue? That power belongs to the Supreme Court, which is part of the national government, of course. So can it really be impartial in making such decisions?

I don’t buy Madison’s argument about equal “spheres” and “impartiality”. It is only fair to Madison to point out that he was looking at an entirely new creation in the world (the U.S. Constitution). And conversely for us, “hindsight is 20-20”. That is, we can now look back at 250 years of actual experience under that document.

To illustrate, suppose you and I are co-captains of the football team, but I get to decide which decisions you get to make. Then unless I’m a super nice guy, you can bet you won’t be making any important decisions at all. You won’t even be a real captain – just a captain in name only.

Likewise, the states are sovereign in name only.

And we should not be surprised to find today that states’ rights have been swallowed up by national supremacy. That is, our states have become mere departments of the national government. They don’t have any real sovereignty at all. They only have whatever decision-making power the national government, from its high and mighty perch, chooses to bestow down upon them. And to make matters worse, our states have become dependent on (even addicted to) national grants-in-aid. That is, the national government gives the states money with strings attached. And the states must obey if they want the money.

Do you believe that it is even possible to have two truly equal sovereigns operating in equal “spheres” as Madison described? Do you think one of them would ever squeeze the other out of power? Can you imagine how we might achieve some kind of equality between the states and the nation with a different federal structure?

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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Davis, Jefferson. 1861. Confederate States of America – Message to Congress April 29, 1861 (Ratification of the Constitution). Yale Law School – The Avalon Project. (Accessed Feb. 6, 2019)

Madison, James. 1787-1788. The Federalist Papers by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay.

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