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A Question of State's Rights

In the years after the Civil War, Southern states insisted that the Confederacy fought to defend state’s rights, not slavery. Although Northern states rejected that argument, there is a case to be made.

From the first settlement of the land that became United States, the economies of North and South differed. Warmer temperatures in Southern states made production of tobacco, cotton and rice possible. These crops were financially rewarding and required intensive labor. While this country was a colony of Britain, slavery filled that need. After American independence, the Constitution recognized this reality.

In the following years, equilibrium was maintained by a series of compromises. A crucial early one was the Missouri Compromise of 1820. At that time there were eleven Northern non-slavery states and eleven Southern states with slavery. Some Northern states hoped to prohibit slavery in new states, but that could not pass the Senate. Admitting Missouri as a slave state would upset the balance, but then free-soil Maine asked for statehood and the problem was solved. This would make twelve states each, free and slave. Besides admitting the two states, another provision of the bill made lands of the Louisiana Purchase north of 36 20’ parallel forever free.

Forever turned out to be only 24 years. Legislation we now know as the Kansas and Nebraska Act to organize the Louisiana Purchase territory could not pass Congress without votes of Southern states and they would not agree that these states should be free since this would give free states a majority. The compromise was that residents of Kansas would vote for or against slavery which led to the violence of “Bleeding Kansas.” Tensions were rising.

But the final blow to compromise came with a Supreme Court decision. The Dred Scott decision ruled that a person whose ancestors came from Africa was not a citizen and could not sue in court. The ruling then invoked the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution which states that no person can be deprived of property without due process of law. Preventing a slave owner from taking his slave property if he should move to a “free” state would unlawfully deprive him of that property.

In the presidential conventions of 1860, delegates from Southern states spoke adamantly about their rights. Northern states reacted in opposition and elected Abraham Lincoln who campaigned on limiting slavery to states where it was already established. Southern states seceded and went to war to defend the right to take slaves anywhere in the country. Thus a war for states’ rights.

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