By Golly They Were Fighting For States’ Rights

It’s always entertaining to watch folks get worked up about the pride they feel when defending those brave white Southerners, who  in 1860-61 were doing nothing more than standing up against an evil federal government that had stepped beyond its constitutional authority.  For many, it’s nothing less than an act of patriotism that may have to be carried out again if we are not careful.  In this interpretation of American history, the American Civil War ushered in a new era of corrupt government.  Lincoln fits perfectly into the role of arch villain, not simply for ordering the total destruction of the Confederacy, but for his blatant disregard of the Constitution.  The act of secession and the war itself constituted the final stand against this blatant disregard for the Constitution.

What is interesting, of course, is that these very same people fail to extend their argument further.  Why not continue to defend these salient constitutional issues within the history of the Confederacy itself?  After all, a closer look at the historical record may reveal an even more defiant stand against the encroachments on states’ and individual rights in the Confederacy as opposed to the United States between 1861 and 1865.  Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to add to the argument that the 1860s represented a fundamental shift in our assumptions about the proper relationship between the states and the federal government?

A cursory glance at the historical record suggests that Southern slaveholders are begging to be embraced as defending their rights against what they perceived to be a corrupt government.  Throughout the war they stood up against every attempt on the part of the Confederate government to impress their slaves for military purposes.  They did so not only because they knew there would be a good chance that their slaves would run away, but that the legislation constituted a direct threat to their individual rights as property holders.  Stephanie McCurry does a brilliant job of explaining all of this in her book, Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South.  If we understand the direct connection between states’ right and slaveholders’ rights we can more easily view the slaveholding class as engaged in a broader struggle to protect their individual rights, first against the United States and, within a short period of time, the Confederate States of America.

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26 comments… add one
  • Roy Mar 11, 2011 @ 6:03

    I bring up McPherson because McPherson is the first to drop the “neo-confederate” label on anyone who list any other cause to secession anything other than a minor and trivial matter. Talk is being silenced because of political correctness. There alot of interesting discussion on history that could happen but you have people specifically set out to take offence from other individuals for talking on the subject and those people set out to offend those people to silence. Though there are a significant number of other people that just don’t know much about the CSA but out of southern pride stand up for common core principals. Slavery was a major cause to secession. And you can look at history from a single minded mind set and nut-shell it but most of the time things are more complicated. When you call people out for a fight expect the drunken brawlers. They will be equipped to knock your teeth out but that’s it. If you want to call people out for an intellectual engagement it’s best to call them on the grounds of neutrality. There are points that can be conceded on both sides and this is an interesting topic. This can be a discussion or it can continue to be a fight that’s been on going for a really long time.

  • Roy Mar 11, 2011 @ 3:53

    In the context of the lost cause one thing not particularly important to talk about by Historians is related to the fact that it was based on Robert E Lee’s views. Lee was a Virginian. Virginia was one of four States that did not secede do to slavery. They did so instead do to Lincoln’s call for troops from VA to suppress the southern Rebellion. A move which the Governor of Virginia (John Letcher) felt was both unconstitutional and not with in the authority granted to him in the 1795 amendments of the militia act of 1795. The Governor was both an opponent to secession and very prominent in the organization of the Peace Conference of 1861. Such an unconstitutional move would be both violative of Virginia’s state sovereignty and it’s states’ rights. Such a look at history would frown on Historians like McPherson who is always looking for a reason to name drop “neo-confederate”.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 11, 2011 @ 4:00

      There were clearly competing views of the constitution at work during the secession crisis, but instead of name dropping historians like McPherson you should state the point in question that you take issue with. I have no idea what argument by McPherson you are referring to in your comment.

  • bill Mar 8, 2011 @ 10:44

    While I believe whole heartedly that slavery was the main issue with the first states to leave I find another reason for states like Virginia and North Carolina. After Lincoln ended habeus corpus in Maryland and made it impossible for the Maryland Legislature to meet he told the Governor of Maryland that his troops could not dig or fly their way to the capitol so his army was going through their state to the Capitol whether they liked it or not( The Civil War / Shelby Foote volumn I). Don’t you think that Virginia and North Carolina were threatened by the same action through their state? The way to the State of South Carolina is through those sovereign states.

    • Bob Pollock Mar 8, 2011 @ 11:48


      You will have to define “sovereign.” In what way were Virginia and North Carolina “threatened”? And, if the federal army could not go into a “sovereign” state, where could it go?

    • Andy Hall Mar 8, 2011 @ 12:43

      It’s fair to point out that while the Constitution says nothing one way or another about secession from the Union, it does clearly authorize Congress (Art. I, Sec. 8) “to provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions.” Moving against the rebellion is a clear, enumerated power of the federal government.

      • Andy Hall Mar 8, 2011 @ 12:48

        Apparently a numeral eight, followed by a close-parentheses sign, translates as a hipster smiley. I told y’all this blog was educational.

    • Brooks Simpson Mar 8, 2011 @ 21:12

      Virginia moved to secede before Lincoln suspended the writ in Maryland.

  • Craig Jan 31, 2011 @ 19:29

    I’ve been looking at the Wikipedia biography for Jefferson Davis and noticed something interesting.

    “In 1836 he moved to Brierfield Plantation in Warren County [Vicksburg], Mississippi. For the next eight years, Davis was a recluse, studying government and history, and engaging in private political discussions with his brother Joseph.[5]”

    Davis had just married Zachary Taylor’s daughter against her father’s wishes in 1835 and resigned his military commission in order to do so. His wife died of malaria three months into the marriage.

    Accounts of the history of Chippewa County in Wisconsin describe Jefferson Davis as a frequent visitor to that area between the time of the Blackhawk War and the War with Mexico. He presented himself as an army captain sent there to survey the Chippewa River as part of a crew that was perhaps a forerunner to the Army Corps of Engineers. Settlers along the Chippewa River were rugged individualists, many of them French-Canadians married to Native American women. Timber was abundant in that part of what became Wisconsin in 1848, but life there was static until it became clear that a market for that timber existed in faraway places like New Orleans and Vicksburg.

    Somehow the eight years Davis spent in southern Mississippi as a “recluse” had fitted him for a seat in the House of Representatives, marriage to the daughter of a former governor of New Jersey and a year or so later the restoration of his military commission.

  • Dan Wright Jan 31, 2011 @ 10:36

    I also liked “Look Away: A History of the CSA” by William C. Davis.
    Davis described multiple forces pulling in all directions within the Confederacy.

    • Arleigh Birchler Jan 31, 2011 @ 11:45

      I am fairly sure that I read that several years ago. I also recall a fairly good article on the Socialist aspects of the Confederacy. One thing I especially remember was asking the citizens to contibute urine for nitre to make gun powder.

  • Elizabeth Laney Jan 31, 2011 @ 10:23

    I was actually taking a break from research on the impressment of the slaves of SC Governor & US Senator James Henry Hammond when I read your article above. Hammond was an ardent and vocal supporter of states’ rights and the desire to create an independent “Southern Slaveholding Society,” and yet he violently opposed most of the measures passed by the Cenfederate and SC governments during the war. He groused about having 16 of his 300 slaves impressed to work on Confederate defenses in Charleston. He argued with Confederate officials over the price and supply of corn he owed the army. He stated that the South could not fight a “volunteer” war but complained when the Confederacy passed a conscription that forced one of his sons into the war. My favorite hypocrisy of Hammond’s however how he went from calling the war “the Great Revolution” to “this silly serenade.”

    I really appreciate your blog and the article above. I’m an interpreter at a historic site who is struggling to find the best way to interpret this controverisal and challenging history and your articles have really helped me gain some valuable insight into this time period and our memory of it today. THANKS!

    • Kevin Levin Jan 31, 2011 @ 12:37


      Thanks for your comment. One thing that I found interesting in the McCurry book is that some slaveowners complained less about conscription than they did about impressment. I think it’s possible to see slaveowners as engaged in drawn out attempt to protect their property rights, first within the Union until that no longer was tenable and then against the Confederacy itself.

      Please feel free to contact me at me [] if you want to talk further about the challenges of interpreting this subject within the context of public history.

      • Elizabeth Laney Jan 31, 2011 @ 13:02

        I think you and McCurry make an excellant point. Hammond was embittered about a lot of things, noticeably about his lack of influence in the new government, but none so much as encroachments regarding his personal property. I definitely plan to get a copy of McCurry’s book. I think it will prove very useful to my research.

        And thanks, I may take you up on that offer to talk further about interpreting the Civil War.

        • Kevin Levin Jan 31, 2011 @ 13:08

          You are very welcome. Feel free to take me up on that offer at any time.

  • Arleigh Birchler Jan 31, 2011 @ 8:04

    I enjoyed these books. I can not speak to their academic credentials.

    Degler, Carl N; “The Other South: southern dissenters in the nineteenth century”
    Freeling, William W; “The South vs The South: anti-confederate southerners of the civil war”

    • Kevin Levin Jan 31, 2011 @ 8:07

      Both are essential reading.

  • London John Jan 31, 2011 @ 7:11

    “a closer look at the historical record may reveal an even more defiant stand against the encroachments on states’ and individual rights in the Confederacy”. Isn’t that what Govs Vance of NC and Brown of Georgia were doing?

    • Kevin Levin Jan 31, 2011 @ 7:36

      That is exactly what they were doing.

    • Arleigh Birchler Jan 31, 2011 @ 7:50

      It is my understanding that Govs Vance and Brown were very Anti-Confederate (or at the very least, Anti-Davis), but I am not expert ont he matter.

      • Kevin Levin Jan 31, 2011 @ 7:56

        A stance against the Confederate government did not necessarily imply a broader “anti-Confederate” stance. It is quite easy to imagine white Southerners embracing Confederate nationalism even as they protested against specific acts by Davis or the legislature. I highly recommend Aaron Sheehan-Dean’s _Why Confederates Fought: Family and Nation in Civil War Virginia_

      • Boyd Harris Jan 31, 2011 @ 9:13

        It is a little harsh to label Vance as anti-Confederate (I cannot say anything in regard to Brown, but have done a little research on Vance), or even anti-Davis. Vance had his problems with the administration, but by and large continued to support the Confederacy up to the final moments. He met with Davis in Greensboro in April 1865, as the President and his cabinet were trying to flee south. Only after this meeting did Vance stop supporting the Confederacy. Part of the image of Vance as anti-Confederate, or perhaps an ardent States Rights man, comes out of the complex relationship between NC and the Confederacy. Vance was governor of a state that contained a large number of southern unionists and was largely perceived by the Confederacy, particularly VA newspapers, as a lukewarm friend to the Confederacy. The majority of his administration was spent trying to keep NC as a viable member of the Confederacy, while also appeasing his constituents. Under this interpretation, Vance seems like most state governors who advocate their state over others. See Gordon McKinney’s book Zeb Vance: North Carolina’s Civil War Governor and Gilded Age Political Leader. It provides a more in depth description of Vance’s political relationship with Richmond and how it contrasted in some ways with his personal allegiance to the Confederacy.

        • Kevin Levin Jan 31, 2011 @ 10:24

          Thanks for the comment, Boyd. McKinney’s biography is the place to go to re: Vance, but I am not aware of a recent scholarly study of Brown. Anyone?

  • Richard Jan 31, 2011 @ 5:48

    This whole anti-“big government” argument may be even worse than I had realized. In “Creating a Confederate Kentucky” (thanks, Kevin for the recommendation – it’s an excellent book), Anne Marshall discusses happenings in Lexington, KY from 1902 to 1906. A theater hosted a traveling play of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and it was a big annual hit, but the United Daughters of the Confederacy decided it was offensive to their version of past Kentucky life, including slavery. They at first tried a public protest movement to get the theater owner to stop showing it, but when that failed, they moved on to the state legislature and in 1906 that body passed a law banning any play that “is based upon antagonism alleged formerly to exist, between master and slave, or that excited race prejudice.'”

    In other words, 40 years after the war ended and slavery was banned, Confederate sympathizers resorted to a violating of the 1st Amendment of the US Constitution to defend not actual slavery, but the MEMORY of slavery. I guess they would say it was a “state’s right” to adopt such rules, but any comments about wanting small government or how Lincoln/the Union violated the Constitution lose all credibility (if they ever had any) with an action like this.

    Put this in context with the gag order and fugitive slave war of antebellum times and it paints an interesting picture of what at least some Confederate/Confederate supporters expected from government regarding slavery. Not only did they want to prevent public criticism and opposition of slavery itself when it existed, but 4 decades later, when their institution was dead, they were still trying to defend it.

    (Of course, under the law passed by Kentucky – called the “Uncle Tom’s Cabin Law” – plays/shows that offende African-Americans were still permitted.)

    • JMRudy Jan 31, 2011 @ 13:12

      Thanks Richard! That arrow’s going in my interpretive quiver…

  • Arleigh Birchler Jan 31, 2011 @ 4:54

    Good post. I read some very good books about opposition to the Confederacy within the South. I suspect I might be able to find the names of the books and the authors if I search a bit. The minority of large scale slave owners were able to control the majority of non-slave owners and owners of a few slaves. Nothing new.

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