On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia offered a resolution to the Second Continental Congress, then meeting in Philadelphia, which began with the epic demand, “ That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States.” After a month of heated deliberation, the Congress finally adopted Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence which incorporated Lee’s opening phrase in its final paragraph. In September of that year, the Continental Congress formally declared that the term United Colonies would thereafter be officially replaced by the name United States. Since that time, the battle to firmly establish the legal and Constitutional rights of the individual States has continued to rage in the nation’s legislative chambers and courts, as well as on the field of battle. What is, however, generally misunderstood today, is that the more modern concept of constituent or federated states, entities that are little more than political subdivisions within a sovereign nation, was then unknown to Lee, Jefferson and the other members of the Continental Congress, and what they actually envisioned were thirteen united British colonies that would become transformed into a like number of united sovereign states . . . or what might better be termed, a league of independent nations.
A month after General Cornwallis’s surrender of the last British forces at Yorktown in 1781, the Congress of the new nation finally ratified the document that had been initially drawn up in November of 1777 in an effort to form a perpetual “league of friendship” between the newly united States, The Articles of Confederation. Even though the word “perpetual” had been used in relation to the creation of the United States of America, Article II of that document clearly stipulated that the sovereignty, freedom and independence of each State would be retained, as well as the retention of every “Power, Jurisdiction, and right . . . not . . . expressly delegated to the United States.” When it was decided six years later that a “more perfect union” would be needed to better govern the new nation, the Tenth Amendment, the last of the Bill of Rights that were soon added to the Constitution, reiterated, if somewhat less clearly, that the rights of the individual States would continue to be retained by setting forth that the powers that were . . . “ not delegated to the United States by the Constitution” would be “reserved to the States . . . or to the people.” While the words “sovereign” and “independent” were omitted from the Tenth Amendment, it should be evident even today that Eighteenth Century thinking would continue to tacitly imply that the term “State” referred to a sovereign entity . . . political units that might be somewhat equated to those in a nation a century later in which more than two dozen European kingdoms, principalities, duchies and other sovereign states would continue to act as independent nations within a Prussian-led union, the German Empire.
The initial intention in regard to the American States becomes quite evident as one reads the Federalist Papers, a series of eighty-five newspaper articles written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay during 1787 and 1788 to promote passage of the new Constitution. In the thirty-second essay, Hamilton states in reference to the Constitution that uniting . . . “the States into one national sovereignty would imply an entire subordination of the parts.” He then went on to say that in the proposed compact . . . “the State governments would clearly retain all rights of sovereignty which they before had . . .” Then, in the thirty-ninth essay, Madison further wrote that under the new Constitution each State would be . . . “considered as a sovereign body, independent of all others . . .” Over the intervening two centuries, however, that initial concept of state’ rights in which the sovereign States would be operating in concert with a limited central government has, by legislative, executive and judicial action, been gradually transformed into today’s monolithic, centralized federal state composed of fifty subservient, constituent state governments.
While the South has long been regarded as the bastion of states’ rights and opposition to the growing power of the federal government, the initial resistance to such power actually developed in the North. Even when the opening gavel sounded at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall on May 25, 1787, only twelve of the thirteen States were in attendance, as Rhode Island initially opposed the idea of an even more powerful central government and remained absent from the Convention for two months. Furthermore, when the the Constitution was finally enacted on June 21, 1788, Rhode Island delayed its ratification for another two years. Numerous compromises were also required prior to the Constitution’s final ratification, with one of the most important involving a North/South argument. Virginia had opted for a more populist plan in which each State’s representation in Congress would be based solely on population, while New Jersey insisted that each State should be equally represented, regardless of size. The compromise ultimately resulted in a proportionally elected House of Representative and two senators to represent each State. However, it was not until ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913 that U. S. senators were elected, not by their State legislatures, but by a popular vote within the State.
It was a mere six years after the enactment of the Constitution that federal troops were first used to quell an armed uprising in a State, and this also took place in the North when whisky distillers in Pennsylvania, with cries of “liberty and no excise,” rebelled against the federal tax being levied on their products. A militia force of some 13,000 that had been gathered from several States and was led by President George Washington and Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton marched into western Pennsylvania to crush the so-called “Whisky Rebellion.” The federal army, which was larger than the force generally led by General Washington during the Revolutionary War, soon awed the “rebels,” and all were easily dispersed or captured with little or no actual bloodshed. The first moves toward the nullification of federal laws by a State, as well as secession from the Union, likewise arose in the North with such opposition in New England being created by the federal government’s actions during the War of 1812. Some in the New England States had initially threatened to make a separate peace with the British, and in December of 1814 representatives of the five New England States met in Hartford, Connecticut, to discuss their grievances. Some opted for secession, but the majority merely demanded that the power of Congress and the federal government be reduced. With the American victory at New Orleans and the signing of the peace treaty with England, New England’s protests eventually evaporated, and opposition to the rise in federal power began to move southward.
Aside from the 1798 resolutions by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in Virginia and Kentucky, which unsuccessfully sought to invalidate the federal Alien and Sedition Acts by declaring them to be unconstitutional, the first major nullification action below the Mason-Dixon Line took place in South Carolina in 1828. In that year Vice-President John C. Calhoun opposed a new federal tariff that he charged aided Northern manufacturers at the expense of Southern agricultural interests. The tax battle continued to be argued in the U. S. Senate during the next few years and when even more onerous tariff bills were proposed in 1832, South Carolina stated that it would not only nullify the federal laws, but bar the collection of such taxes in the State. After President Andrew Jackson threatened to enforce the tax laws in South Carolina with federal troops, a ten-year tariff reduction compromise was eventually worked out by Calhoun, then a senator from South Carolina, and Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky. This action, of course, only delayed any actual solution in the deepening struggle between the North and South over a wide variety of tax and economic differences, including the extension of Southern slave labor into new States and U. S. territories. This ever-worsening sectional strife would drag on for another three decades before South Carolina and other Southern States finally decided there was no way to resolve their problems other than to legally resign from any further participation in the Union and revert to their original status as independent, sovereign States.
Historians now say that all question of the South’s Nineteenth Century call for independence was ultimately answered by the crushing defeat of the Confederate States of America on the field of battle . . . but while overwhelming military resources and numbers may well strike down a nation, the cause and ideals for which such country fought its battles are never fully extinguished. . . nor should they be. Years after the guns fell silent and the Northern occupation finally came to an end, the South, led by a revitalized Democratic Party, slowly began to rekindle the historic flame of states’ rights. This struggle culminated in the presidential elections of 1948, when Southern Democrats, led by Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and Governor Fielding Wright of Mississippi, finally decided that neither major party properly upheld the Constitutional principles needed to guide America, and formed the States’ Rights Democratic Party, more widely known as the “Dixiecrats.” Not since the 1912 “Bull Moose” campaign of progressive Theodore Roosevelt that won six states and twenty-seven per cent of the popular vote, had any third-party effort won as many votes as that of Senator Thurmond. The “Dixiecrats” in 1948 carried four states, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina, as well as one electoral vote in Tennessee, and won well over a million popular votes nationwide.
As the years progressed, and the Democratic Party became less conservative and more progressive, the Southern Democrats began to move away from their traditional political base and embrace the emerging cause of conservative Republicanism. This was particularly true in 1964 when GOP Senator Barry Goldwater not only carried the same States that Senator Thurmond had won, but Georgia as well. With the exception of Lyndon Johnson’s home State of Texas, where even there Goldwater received almost forty per cent of the popular vote, the Republican candidate also garnered just under half the votes in the remaining five States of the former Confederacy . . . a most impressive showing for the once hated party of Abraham Lincoln, and a forecast of what was to occur throughout the South. However, just as the War Between the States did not resolve the legal question of secession, an action now being proposed by some in California, neither has the question of what actually constitutes an American State ever been fully answered.
In the course of the coming years, there seems to be but little chance that the nation’s newly-elected chief executive, its largely conservative Republican Congress or even a more conservatively-oriented Supreme Court would be able, or even be willing, to return the States to the truly independent and sovereign status envisioned by our Founding Fathers almost two and a half centuries ago. Therefore, I submiy that the best we can hope for during these next few years is to see a greater effort on the part of those in the new administration to at least return the nation to one in which there is a far more equitable balance between the Constitutional rights of the individual States and the designated limits of the federal government.