States’ Rights For What?

fallofhouseofdixieI am in the home stretch with Bruce Levine’s wonderful new book, The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution That Transformed the South.  It’s extremely well written and is an excellent introduction to the story of the Confederacy and the central role that slavery played in its ultimate failure.  It should come as no surprise that Levine spends a good deal of time toward the end of the book exploring the debate over the enlistment of black soldiers into Confederate ranks.  The following two paragraphs address the conflict between the recruitment of blacks into the army and the stated goals of the Confederate government to protect the institution of slavery.

What follows serves as a reminder of how dangerous it is to generalize about what Confederates were fighting for outside of any historical context.  This is especially true for those who reduce this complex question to states’ rights.

Some of the measure’s [recruitment of blacks] champions responded coyly to this most fundamental of objections.  The editors of two Richmond papers declared that they and the white South as a whole had been fighting not for the sake of slavery but to secure states’ rights and southern independence.  “We are told by some horrified individuals,” said the Richmond Sentinel in affected surprise, “that this is ‘giving up the cause.'”  But, its editor demanded, just what cause are they referring to?  “We thought that independence was, just now, the great question.”  “This war is waged for the liberty, independence, and nationality of these States,” the Enquirer chimed in, and it was “for this object only” that “the people have made the tremendous sacrifices of the last four years.”  It follows as night the day that “any measure which secures the liberty, independence and nationality of these States is justified and made our imperative duty.”

Davis’s opponents found this claim simply laughable.  Yes, they retorted, we value states’ rights.  But the purpose of those rights has always been to protect the southern master from interference by a potentially hostile national government.  All southerners knew that “slavery–aggressions upon it by the North, apprehensions for its safety in the South”–was the “cause of Secession and that “all other questions were subordinate to it,” one Georgian now reminded his president.  “The principle of State Sovereignty” was “important to the South principally, or solely, as the armor that encased her peculiar institution.”  They had finally opted for full-scale independence for the same reason–to guarantee slavery’s future.  “Of what value is ‘self-government’ to the South,” one Texan demanded, once “the very fabric of Southern prosperity” has been lost? (252-53)

What I find so interesting is that the eventual bill that was passed through the Confederate Congress authorizing the enlistment of slaves into the army was rendered entirely ineffective because individual states and slaveholders held so tightly to their individual property rights in opposition to what they perceived to be an overly intrusive federal government in Richmond.  The only slaves that would be welcomed into the Confederate army were those who had been manumitted by their masters and who freely chose to join.  In the end, Confederates understood what states’ rights was all about.

7 comments… add one
  • Eric Welch Feb 16, 2013 @ 13:06

    I have ordered the book which sounds quite interesting. With regard to states’ rights, you are clearly much more knowledgeable than I will ever be, but it seems to me that northern states had a stronger claim on the issue than southern states given that the south was urging a much stronger federal response to the reluctance of states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania who were refusing to enforce fugitive slave laws. It was decisions like Prigg v Pennsylvania and Dred Scott that hammered home the southern will to force northern states to, in effect, become supporters of slavery. If states rights doctrine was to have any meaning at all, southern states should have supported individual northern states efforts to defang the effects of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

    • Woodrowfan Feb 17, 2013 @ 16:01

      It was definitely “state’s rights for me, but not for thee.”

  • Brad Feb 14, 2013 @ 7:18

    It appears that the Southern federal government was not as important to the planter class as the idea of property rights, the province of the individual states.

    It may be that each of the federal governments were contending with the proper allocation of power between the states and the federal government, although I think that issue had been resolved in the North and, once the war ended, the country. I suppose that harkens back to Shelby Foote’s statement about “The United States are” versus “The United States Is.”

    • Andy Hall Feb 15, 2013 @ 6:45

      Foote made that up. It’s a fantastic way to illustrate his larger point about reconciliation and the war as this nation’s trial-by-fire, but as a factual matter it’s just not true.

  • Jimmy Dick Feb 13, 2013 @ 10:58

    The more research that is done into the Civil War, the more it becomes clear that state’s rights was definitely not the reason for secession. This book by Bruce Levine makes me wonder if the state’s rights issue was already being introduced late in the war by the Confederates in an attempt to appeal to patriotism among the people. However, what patriotism existed to appeal to? There were many schisms within the Confederacy which the war magnified. It is very clear that by the winter of 1865 the people in the South were done with the war, done with the cause of it, and done with the Confederacy.
    The support of the people is critical in any time of great conflict and the leaders of the Confederacy, not to mention the slaveowner’s themselves had lost the support of their people.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 13, 2013 @ 11:10

      I take a slightly different approach. The language of states’ rights was there from the beginning, but it was almost always bound up in more specific debates/questions that quite often revolved around slavery. That is the point I was trying to make in reference to the two paragraphs in this post.

      • Elizabeth Goetsch Feb 13, 2013 @ 18:21

        Yes! After working at a Civil War battlefield for over four years, that was usually how I encouraged discussion with visitors who wanted to say the American Civil War was fought over states’ rights and states’ rights alone. I’d just ask them “the right to what?” and that seemed to open up a dialogue about the complexities of causes. And how slavery arguably is (in NPS jargon) “inextricably linked” to every cause.

Now that you've read the post, share your thoughts.