States' rights

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States' rights for what purpose? States' rights, or sovereignty, was always more a means than an end, an instrument to achieve a certain goal more than a principle. ~ James M. McPherson

States' rights, in American political discourse, refers to political powers reserved for the U.S. state governments rather than the federal government according to the United States Constitution, reflecting especially the enumerated powers of Congress and the Tenth Amendment.

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  • You start out in 1954 by saying, "Nigger, nigger, nigger." By 1968 you can't say "nigger"—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, "We want to cut this," is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than "Nigger, nigger."
    • Lee Atwater, in 1981, as quoted in The Two Party South (1990), by Alexander P. Lamis, et al., New York: Oxford University Press
    • Also quoted in "Impossible, Ridiculous, Repugnant" (6 October 2005), by Bob Herbert, The New York Times, New York: New York Times Company


  • To the old Union they had said that the Federal power had no authority to interfere with slavery issues in a state. To their new nation they would declare that the state had no power to interfere with a federal protection of slavery. Of all the many testimonials to the fact that slavery, and not states rights, really lay at the heart of their movement, this was the most eloquent of all.
    • William C. Davis, as quoted in Look Away!: A History of the Confederate States of America (2002), p. 97-98.


  • I tell you that, while I believe with you in the doctrine of states rights, the North is determined to preserve this Union.
    • Sam Houston, as quoted in Sam Houston (2004), by James Haley, University of Oklahoma Press, p. 397.
  • To those who say, 'My friends, to those who say that we are rushing this issue of civil rights', I say to them we are 172 years late. To those who say? To those who say that, 'this civil-rights program is an infringement on states' rights'? I say this, The time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states' rights and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.



  • I believe each individual is naturally entitled to do as he pleases with himself and the fruit of his labor, so far as it in no wise interferes with any other man's rights, that each community, as a State, has a right to do exactly as it pleases with all the concerns within that State that interfere with the right of no other State, and that the general government, upon principle, has no right to interfere with anything other than that general class of things that does concern the whole.
    • Abraham Lincoln, speech at Chicago, Illinois (July 10, 1858), in Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, vol. 2, p. 493 (1953).


  • No political dreamer was ever wild enough to think of breaking down the lines which separate the States, and of compounding the American people into one common mass.
  • While one or more of these interpretations remain popular among the Sons of Confederate Veterans and other Southern heritage groups, few professional historians now subscribe to them. Of all these interpretations, the states' rights argument is perhaps the weakest. It fails to ask the question, states' rights for what purpose? States' rights, or sovereignty, was always more a means than an end, an instrument to achieve a certain goal more than a principle.
    • James M. McPherson, This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War (2007). Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 3–9


  • Secession was required to preserve slavery. Why should non-slaveholders care? Because slavery was the will of God, and those who opposed the institution–the abolitionists–were by definition anti-God. More to the point, secession was necessary to preserve white supremacy, to avoid a race war, and to prevent racial amalgamation. For Southerners to remain in the Union, be they slave-owners or non-slave-owners, meant losing their property, their social standing, and the 'sacred purity of our daughters'. Tariffs appear nowhere in these sermons and speeches, and 'states' rights' are mentioned only in the context of the rights of states to decide whether some of their inhabitants can own other humans.
  • Is the United States going to decide, are the people of this country going to decide that their Federal Government shall in the future have no right under any implied power or any court-approved power to enter into a solution of a national economic problem, but that that national economic problem must be decided only by the States?… We thought we were solving it, and now it has been thrown right straight in our faces. We have been relegated to the horse-and-buggy definition of interstate commerce.
    • Franklin D. Roosevelt, remarks at press conference (May 31, 1935). The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1935, p. 215, 221 (1938). Monday, May 27, 1935, became known as "Black Monday." One of the decisions the Supreme Court handed down that day was the case of Schechter Poultry Corporation v. United States, to which Roosevelt refers.

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