After much reading about both modern politics and the Civil War I’ve come to the conclusion that the autonomy of States is not a philosophy that is to be adhered to closely; it is a fall-back position to take when the political tide is against you.
In Civil War terms, nothing makes this more clear to me than the Fugitive Slave Law, which passed Congress in 1850. This made it the responsibility of Federal Marshals and free-soil officials to return fugitive slaves discovered within their borders to their slave-owners.
The act was worse than that, however — suspected fugitive slaves had no legal rights and could not contest their status in a court. After the Fugitive Slave Law was passed, all you had to do to take a black person off the street in Boston and put them to work in your field in Alabama was swear that he or she was an escaped slave. Free-soil laws on what constituted a person did not matter. And free-soil law enforcement was thus required to enforce Southern law within its own borders.
So the South was perfectly willing to throw its Federal weight around when it had controll of the Federal system. And when it lost control with the election of Lincoln, the South seceded — after decades of threatening to do so if the rest of the nation did not cater to its demands.
We can still see this at work today. When social conservatives feel they have the upper hand, they are more than happy to use the power of the Federal government to ban or prohibit behavior they don’t like. In the past eight years we’ve seen Federal intervention in state efforts to make drug legislation, physician-assisted suicide, gay marriage, abortion — even television entertainment. Remember Janet Jackson’s nipple? Federal raids on medical marijuana? The Defense of Marriage act? I’m sure you can come up with some of your own.
Given the opportunity to dictate behavior to the entire nation, social conservatives will gladly do it. But put a liberal in office — like Obama — and they start crying about “states rights” and threatening secession.
I do believe that states, counties, and cities should be able to make some decisions on their own. Alaska ought to be allowed to make gun laws, for example, that differ from those in Washington DC.
But I don’t think that the people who yell “States Rights” the loudest actually believe in it. Or maybe they do. Maybe it’s just not as important to them as other things.
But if that’s the case, it’s hard to see why it was worth fighting a war over.