States Rights & the Civil War

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  • 0:04 Reasons for Civil War
  • 0:53 What Are States' Rights?
  • 2:03 States' Rights & The Civil War
  • 3:26 Some Examples of…
  • 5:18 States' Rights vs Slavery
  • 7:10 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashlyn Kershner

Ashlyn is just entering the teaching world and has a master's degree in social sciences with a focus in American history.

In this lesson, we'll look at the notion of states' rights and their role in the United States Civil War, as well as some examples of how states' rights were invoked regarding the question of slavery. After diving into this debate, you'll be able to test your knowledge with a quiz!

Reasons for Civil War

Everyone knows what the American Civil War was all about, right? After all, it's one of the most taught historical periods in classrooms across the country, and few events have had a greater impact on the future of the United States. You might think that'd mean there is a consensus in our understanding of the war. However, there are still some who claim that the Civil War was not really about slavery, as you might expect, but about states' rights.

What Are States' Rights?

The Civil War is believed by most to be caused because of the issue of slavery. Some, however, believe that it was actually about states' rights, or the rights of states to govern themselves outside of the control of the federal government. Whenever states' rights arguments are made, they all eventually come back to slavery. States' rights were simply a convenient political debate to fit the slavery argument into.

The American Civil War was, ultimately, about one thing: slavery. However, other issues found their way into the debate as well. Arguably the most significant of these was the issue of states' rights. The idea of states' rights, at its most basic level, is the idea that the states that make up the United States of America should have individual rights to work as their own independent governments beyond the control of the national government. For example, while most states in the U.S. have a minimum driving age of sixteen years, it is actually up to each individual state to decide. In South Dakota, for instance, the driving age is actually fourteen. This is generally believed to be due to the large farming population that requires the help of young teens on family farms, often requiring that these teens drive trucks or tractors to tend to crops and livestock, but there is no legislative evidence for this belief. In New Jersey, the minimum driving age is seventeen, the highest in the country. There have been efforts in the past decades to impose a national law for the driving similar to the national drinking age in 1985, but these efforts have not been successful as of 2017.

States' Rights & the Civil War

In the mid-eighteenth century, the largest states' rights debate was, unsurprisingly, largely about slavery. For decades, the slavery debate had been heating up, and many thought the best way to solve it would be a compromise involving states' rights. This would mean that each state got to decide for itself whether slavery would be legal in it. Naturally, the Southern states, where the economy was dependent on plantation farming and the slave trade, voted to maintain slavery while the North, which had begun to industrialize, voted to abolish it, cementing the divide between North and South that would later become the Union and the Confederacy. This solution overlooked one thing, however. What would happen to states just entering the union? Would new states become slave states or free states? The North largely thought new states ought to be free, while the South largely thought those states ought to choose for themselves (which, in many cases, would likely lead to more slave states). While the South touted itself as pro-states' rights, and not just pro-slavery, they were very concerned that the free states would begin to outnumber the slave states and that this would lead to nationwide abolition. This is the same argument used today to oppose a national driving age. Citizens of states that lean conservative tend to fear that a national driving age will open the door to additional national measures, taking away rights from the states.

Some Examples of States' Rights

There were a number of instances where the states' rights debate came into play in the years leading up to the Civil War, but perhaps two of the most important and most telling were the Dred Scott Case of 1857 and the prior Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

Fugitive Slave Act

Let's first take a look at the Fugitive Slave Act. The Fugitive Slave Act, which was part of the Compromise of 1850, gave full ownership rights to slaveowners over their slaves and required that escaped slaves found in free states be returned to their owners in the South. This was a clear encroachment on the rights of the free states to let African-Americans reside in them in peace.

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