States' Rights (my ass)

In an attempt to – in the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates – make myself “less stupid” about the Civil War, I finally started James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom.  It’s perhaps the most widely acclaimed single-volume Civil War history out there.  It’s also 900 pages and has been sitting on my bookshelf staring at me condescendingly for some time.

As any good history should, Battle Cry of Freedom starts nearly three decades before its supposed topic of exploration and McPherson devotes 250-300 pages on the run up to war.  In a word, he spends 250-300 pages on slavery.  Today I ran across a few interesting passages on the issue of slavery, and “states’ rights” in particular.

He begins one chapter by stating:

“On all issues, but one, antebellum southerners stood for state’s rights and a weak federal government.  The exception was the fugitive slave law of 1850, which gave the national government more power than any other law yet passed by Congress.”

He detailed this massive power given to the federal government on behalf of the slave-holding states, stating that “to secure these rights the law seemed to ride roughshod over the prerogatives of northern states.”  The law compelled federal marshals to assist in the retrieval of fugitive slaves and exacted a $1,000 fine from any marshal that refused.  President Millard Fillmore sent in federal troops on occasion to enforce the law.  On the occasion of one retrieval in a Massachusetts court:

“... officials sealed the courthouse with a heavy chain (which abolitionists publicized as a symbol of the slave power’s reach into the North) and guarded it with police and soldiers.  For nine days in April 1851 the [activist abolitionist] vigilance committee lawyers vainly sought writs of habeas corpus and tried other legal maneuvers to free [escaped slave Thomas] Sims.  When the federal commissioner found for his owner, 300 armed deputies and soldiers removed him from the courthouse at 4:00 a.m. and marched him on a ship going south to slavery.”

Food for thought next time someone decides the Civil War was about “states’ rights.”  It was about states’ rights only so long as they were the most effective means of protecting the institution of slavery.  The second they aren’t?  Send in the army.