Americans today have so many distractions that few realize their country has been gripped by a critical debate over states’ rights that parallels the pre-Civil War argument over preserving the union.
That’s not to say people are ready to meet on the battlefield, brother against brother, to settle the current dispute. But today’s arguments could have an effect on the role of the federal government that is just as profound.
From immigration and health-care reform to abortion rights and gay marriage, states are asserting the right to regulate the legal status and social conduct of their residents. Conservative courts may lean in their favor, and Congress appears too politically divided to put up a fight.
The similarities to the states’ rights arguments of more than a century ago struck me while I was reading Jon Meacham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography “American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House.” While Abraham Lincoln gets deserved credit as the savior of the union, having won the Civil War, Jackson blocked a Southern march toward secession 30 years earlier.
Igniting the powder keg, as it would 30 years later, was South Carolina. The state had resisted an 1828 tariff on textiles that reduced English demand for American cotton. When Congress imposed a new but lesser tariff in 1832, South Carolina decided it was more than it could tolerate.
Its favorite son, John C. Calhoun, who also happened to be vice president, came up with a cockamamie idea he called “nullification,” insisting that the individual states did not have to be subservient to federal authority. (And Barack Obama thinks he has trouble keeping Joe Biden quiet.)
Actually, I’m giving Calhoun too much credit. The Kentucky and Virginia legislatures also passed resolutions claiming they could nullify congressional acts in 1798 and 1799, but the idea was rejected by the other states.
As Calhoun explained the concept, the states were part of a compact allowing each to review acts of Congress and nullify the application of any they found unacceptable within their borders.
Under such guidelines today, it would be perfectly fine for Arizona to ignore federal immigration laws and impose its own — as could California, New Mexico, Texas or New Jersey.
Get the picture? Jackson did. Acting decisively to nip Calhoun’s notion in the bud, he called nullification an “abomination” that would dissolve the union.
That didn’t deter South Carolina, which passed nullification in 1832, declaring itself exempt from the tariff laws recently passed by Congress.
Jackson’s swift response came in the form of a proclamation that is worthy of review today as advocates of states’ rights are insisting federalism is unfairly cumbersome.
Jackson noted that South Carolina’s law was founded “on the strange position” that the Constitution “permits a State to retain its place in the Union, and yet be bound by no other of its laws than those it may choose to consider as constitutional. ... If this doctrine had been established at an earlier day, the Union would have been dissolved in its infancy.”
The law even included a provision for secession if it wasn’t recognized. South Carolina held that it had a right to secede because the Constitution, as a compact, did not take away the states’ sovereignty.
“Fallacious as this course of reasoning is,” Jackson said, “it enlists State pride, and finds advocates in the honest prejudices of those who have not studied the nature of our government sufficiently to see the radical error on which it rests.”
He said the terms used in the construction of the Constitution “show it to be a government in which the people of all the States collectively are represented.” That Americans are “one people,” Jackson said, is reflected in their election of one president and one vice president.
He further noted that although the states elect their own senators and representatives, they “are paid by the United States, not by the State; nor are they accountable to it for any act done in the performance of their legislative functions; ... it is their first and highest duty, as representatives of the United States, to promote the general good.”
That should be drummed into the heads of today’s members of Congress, who too frequently ignore the “general good” as they seek to ensure their re-election by appeasing local constituencies instead of standing up for what they know would be of greater benefit to the nation as a whole.
Of course, South Carolina being South Carolina, it cared not a whit about Jackson’s resolution. So Old Hickory followed up by getting Congress to pass what became known as the Force Act, giving the president authority to employ state militias and federal troops to crush any rebellion.
The nullification law was subsequently repealed. And Congress did lower the tariffs. But Jackson predicted slavery would be the next catalyst for a states’ rights foray.
Today, on any number of issues, the states are saying they want to be left alone. Perhaps they need to be reminded of the motto this nation adopted soon after its founding in 1776: E Pluribus Unum — Out of many, one.
Harold Jackson is editorial page editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to him at The Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, PA 19101, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Harold Jackson: Memories from civil rights era