States' rights and slavery

Anyone defending the idea that the people of the states in America have the right to decide their own laws on matters not explicitly assigned to the federal government in the U.S. Constitution will almost inevitably have someone appear, like the zombie in the Woods– Murphy videos, moaning, "Slavery!"

What is amusing here is that such zombies have things exactly backwards: there was no national consensus to outlaw slavery, and the only thing enabling some parts of the United States to be free of this egregious institution was... states' rights!

It was only the fact that northern states could ban this practice unilaterally that created a large block of the country where slaveholding interests did not have political power, thus enabling the elimination of slavery in the entire country.

Hat tip to historian Joseph Stromberg for his advice on this post.

UPDATE: And of course, sometimes, states' rights were employed to enable bad things, like segregation in the Antebellum South. And sometimes, centralized state power has been used to enable some bad things, like the Holocaust, the Gulag, the killing fields, the 20 million killed by Mao in China, etc.

Hmm, which should we prefer...?


  1. Is that a rhetorical question at the end?

  2. "And sometimes, completely centralized state power has been used to enable some bad things, like the Holocaust…"

    That's wrong. The Nazis never achieved totalitarian control of Germany.

    1. Took out the word "completely." They certainly centralized it much more than it had been.

    2. Did they merely centralize authority in Germany or do you mean that they increased government control?

  3. Well, naturally you are 100% right that simply moaning “slavery!” is intellectually vacant. If people were to moan “Jim Crow!”, they would at least be getting the guilt by association smear right. I think “states’ rights” has acquired a bad reputation because almost nobody in modern American politics actually cares a whit about states’ rights, so when it comes up in practice there’s a good chance it’s concealing some other motivation. e.g. the “states’ rights” segregationists were hardly consistent opponents of federal power: they were TVA-loving Democrats.

    “States’ rights” has the additional quality of being, like “some of my best friends are black”, something that one simply does not say. That is, it’s a shibboleth: anybody who’s anybody knows it’s taboo, so he that says it proves himself to be a sundry lowbrow.

  4. Yeah, which was why I was shocked by the Brexit debate.

    The issue is not whether British people are against trade, immigration, or doing business in other countries. The issue is whether they want to do it through the EU or if they get a bad deal from doing so.


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