States’ Rights, Courtesy of Feds

Historian Eric Foner takes on the states rights Civil War narrative:

… with politics today, it’s easy to say, ‘Hey, it must have been a bunch of Northern capitalists trying to control the South,’ or ‘It was just states’ rights.’ Whenever I lecture, someone raises the issue of states’ rights, and the thing I like to say is: ‘Yes, you’re right. The South believed in states’ rights. And the right they were interested in was the right to own slaves.’ And that was a right created by state law, so naturally they wanted to protect states’ rights.

And then I say, if that was really the issue, then explain the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 to me – which was a federal law before the Civil War in terms of overriding local judicial procedures, overriding local law enforcement. Federal troops, federal marshals, going into states, you think that’s a reflection of states’ rights? No.

When it came to vigorous federal action in defense of slavery, the South was perfectly happy to go that route.

Defenders of free markets similarly obscure the substantial state intervention required to maintain them.

For more from Foner, check out the full interview in this summer’s Jacobin (uploading soon). The whole issue features historians’ reflections on the 150th anniversary of the end of the civil war.

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