150 Years after the Civil War – States’ Rights Lost but the Promise of Equality Fulfilled

At 4:30 in the morning of April 12, 1861, a single cannon ball was fired into the Union garrison at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, starting the war that nearly ended the nation that was uniquely founded on the belief of the inalienable right to freedom of the individual. When the war ended four years later, six hundred thousand men lay dead in the epic struggle for Rights versus doing what is right.

Despite our current view of the war and its times, the Civil War was about the rights of the then thirty-six sovereign states to govern themselves as they deemed appropriate, without undue interference from the Federal government and, if the Federal government’s authority became intolerable, to withdraw from this union of States. The Federal view, espoused by the north, was that our union was insoluble. In the end, the Federal beliefs prevailed and the relationship between the States and the Federal government was forever changed.

Our original war for independence was fought by thirteen sovereign colonies and could have ended with the creation of thirteen independent countries. In fact, at the end of the Revolution we governed ourselves by the Articles of Confederation. It was not until June 1788 that our current Constitution was ratified and the Federal system was born. The States viewed themselves as independent, having surrendered only the authority necessary to conduct those activities best done at the national level, such as negotiating treaties and waging war. The rights of the States to manage their own affairs were so presumed that the country generally referred to itself as “these united States”. It was not until after the Civil War that we became “The United States”.

What the war resolved was that a nation established on the rights of the separate and sovereign States to conduct themselves as they considered to be appropriate, did not include the right to supersede those laws and principles that were determined to be in the best interest of the nation as a whole. A State could not secede from the union nor could it ignore Federal laws, the principle known as nullification.

One hundred fifty years later the Federal government is firmly entrenched as the superior authority in America. The rights of the individual States have been diminished to the extent that in many respects, they are no different than a county is to a State now. The Federal government no longer needs the Grand Army of the Potomac to enforce its superiority. Today, it does so by passing laws that erode States authority and by the power of the purse.

Look at the Medicaid law, Title XIX of the Social Security Act. The Federal government established the law and wrote the regulations. It then passed it to the States to administer and provides enough funds to pay for a substantial part of the program but not all of the costs. It creates the States’ dependency on the Federal government for the money needed to pay for the unfunded mandates and it dictates the terms under which money will be given or withheld. This creates the States de facto subservience to the Federal government. In the words of Richard Nixon, “when you have them by the ***** their hearts and minds will follow”.

Laws that should be the jurisdiction of the States have been subsumed by the Federal government. Health care, drug use, abortion, should all be decided by the citizens of the individual States. In a nation founded on the concept of sovereign states voluntarily surrendering some authority for the good of the nation, our Federal government has abused the principles of the Supremacy Clause and the States are guilty of not challenging them in their actions.

If States Rights was the cause of the Civil War, slavery was its issue. The southern States’ economies were agricultural and they depended on cheap labor provided by slaves. Although we picture large plantations like Tara in Gone with the Wind, most slaves were owned by small farmers who had one or two slaves helping them work the land.

While we now see slavery as having always been unjust, it was a lawful practice for most of civilization. The Holy Bible talks about how to treat slaves in several passages. But by the mid-nineteenth century, America was in a transition where slavery was ending. However, the government could not just legislate its end without dramatic repercussions. The south still considered slavery to be essential to its existence and they asserted their right to continue the practice. For the individual farmer, his slave was his most valuable possession. You could not forcibly take his property from him. The right of property ownership was protected by the Constitution. And yet how can you look at another person and say that he has the status of your mule or your furniture? That a person could be sold the way you would sell a used car when you no longer needed it? We had arrived at the time in our societal evolution that we knew that slavery was inherently wrong.

For the south, the economic dislocation that the abolition of slavery would cause was enough to go to war over. In the end, after the battle of Antietam, President Lincoln freed the slaves in the south. Slavery was finally abolished by the 13th amendment in 1865. This could provide freedom to the slaves but it could not provide equality.

Equality is a state of mind and a social practice. For another hundred years black Americans were treated as inferior. Many white Americans felt that blacks may have their freedom but they would never be their equals. It took a second civil war of social justice to assert the black American’s right to be treated with equal justice by society.

At the start of the Civil War people held radically different attitudes towards black Americans. It took the war to secure their fundamental rights to the liberty that the country considered to be inalienable for its other citizens. It took the civil rights movement, starting in the 1950’s, another half century and two generations of people, to realize the equality of all people.

Today, although many may deny it, we have equality in America. In our last Presidential election, we had a woman almost securing her party’s nomination for president. We had another woman as her party’s candidate for the vice presidency. We elected an African-American as our president.

On August 28, 1963, the Reverend Martin Luther King, jr.  said “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” We have established that now in America.

You can achieve anything in America. Your color will not hold you back. Your sex will not hold you back. Your religion will not hold you back. Only you can hold yourself back. What you achieve for yourself and your family truly is based on how hard you are willing to work and on the content of your character.

One hundred fifty years later our nation has fulfilled the promise of equality that began with the Civil War but has lost the rights of the people to govern themselves as they chose within their States.

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3 Comments to “150 Years after the Civil War – States’ Rights Lost but the Promise of Equality Fulfilled”

  1. Florence Ricken
    Posted April 22, 2011 at 3:48 PM | Permalink

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  2. Young Lucchese
    Posted April 23, 2011 at 3:57 PM | Permalink

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  3. Margarett Blondell
    Posted October 17, 2014 at 3:21 AM | Permalink

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