TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Sovereignty and States' Rights

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Frederick Wertz looks at Luigi Marco Bassani’s “Jefferson, Calhoun and States’ Rights: The Uneasy Europeanization of American Politics,” from Telos 114 (Winter 1999).

In an enlightening piece, Luigi Marco Bassani reopens the door on an all-too-closed chapter of American political discourse: states’ rights. He poses a question that he sees to be the crux of one of the most permanent issues in American history: “In 1776, did the thirteen colonies separate themselves from Great Britain collectively or singularly?” This question, regarding the role of the Federal government in American society, was the essence of American politics for nearly a century. Though political debate and war in the 19th century resulted in an irreversible consolidation of federal power, the issue still crops up in the American political ethos during times of crisis or extreme polarization. Bassani usefully highlights the two most important proponents of states’ rights, Thomas Jefferson and John C. Calhoun.

Thomas Jefferson regarded the Articles of Confederation as a “wonderfully perfect instrument,” and firmly believing in limiting the powers of government, spent much of the 1790s rallying against the centrality of the Constitution. Jefferson based his stance for states’ rights on the opinion that the states did not band together to create a federal government for the purpose of being subservient to it, but rather for it to serve as an agent of the states for specific purposes. He granted the same Lockean concept of natural rights applied to men in the Declaration of Independence to the states of America.

Though he is remembered as a great proponent of civil liberties and a warrior for states’ rights, Jefferson’s political action was markedly disappointing with regard to these areas. Afraid of inciting Federalist political anger, he changed his first inaugural address from an exposition on states’ rights to a speech with a much more conciliatory tone. He acted as one of the most powerful executives of the 19th century, admittedly “stretching the constitution until it cracked” in making the Louisiana Purchase without authority, setting tariffs that led to starvation, and curtailing economic and civil liberties, despite rallying against the Alien and Sedition Acts. In the end, Jefferson was the father of the fight for states’ rights, but a particularly absent one when it counted most.

By the time John C. Calhoun became a fierce proponent of states’ rights, years of “dubious political theories and questionable legal interpretations,” as Bassani puts it, had lead to the marginalization of state power. Unlike many others, Calhoun saw the United States as an assemblage of states rather than one nation as a whole. After all, the existence of the states as sovereign entities preceded the existence of the federal government. The fact that these states entered into a compact with other states using a common agent (i.e., the federal government) did not change their status as sovereign entities. Calhoun believed that sovereignty itself was entirely indivisible, and moreover that “sovereignty is not in the government, it is in the people. Any other conception is utterly abhorrent to the ideas of every American.” Thus, the federal government could only be granted “powers of sovereignty” by the states (which were governed by their own people), and they could also revoke these powers as they saw fit.

Calhoun fought admirably against a majority that he knew he was likely opposing in futility. As Bassani puts it, “Calhoun explicated the constitutional rules at the basis of the US constituent agreement and considered that doctrine of states’ sovereignty a simple fact. Along with all champions of the states’ right school, he was ‘describing what was, not what ought to be, the nature of the federal Union.'”

Two powerful executives in Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln put an emphatic end to the states’ rights school in their actions during the nullification crisis (initially promulgated by Calhoun himself) and the Civil War, respectively. Since, many historians and politicians have, as Bassani puts it, viewed centralization “as a by-product of modernization” and have thus proceeded without questioning whether or not it is in line with the original intent of the founding fathers. Bassani points out that this has very much to do with states’ rights being used, several times throughout history, as a defense for preserving white power in the South. Most recently, the federal government played a decisive role in forcing southern states to fall in line with the Civil Rights movement. To be sure, the immorality of slavery and of discrimination is without question (in fact, the root cause of much of these genetic American problems stems from a great founding contradiction that the Declaration of Independence declares all men to be free and equal, while the government established withheld many rights from a great percentage of the population). Regardless, it is Bassani’s opinion that in the name of morality the Constitution has been violated throughout history. As he concludes, “the psychological wounds were even more acute [than the constitutional wounds]. The federal government succeeded in portraying itself as the true defender of common citizens and minorities. By contrast, the states were perceived as relics of a pastoral as well as racist era, clearly in the way of progress and modernization.”

Bassani’s overall point is well formed, and his insights remain pertinent today. As historians and citizens, we all need to strive to divorce political doctrines that have been married to practices wrought with disdain and evaluate them objectively. Though tragically marginalized, the theoretical value of Jefferson’s and Calhoun’s doctrines endures. Philosophically, it brings up a question that lies at the very foundation of this country: If self-government and self-determination is the founding tenet of American democracy, what are we to do when self-government yields a grossly immoral or dangerous practice? More practically, the issue of states’ rights and the expansive federal government remains relevant in contemporary politics (see Justice Roberts’s opinion in the recent Affordable Care Act decision). Even in an age of politics ruled by a decisive supreme court and iron fist-wielding executives, the law of the land still states that the people of this country are the one and only sovereigns, and Bassani’s exploration of American politics leaves readers unlikely to forget.

Read the full version of Luigi Marco Bassani’s “Jefferson, Calhoun and States’ Rights: The Uneasy Europeanization of American Politics” at the Telos Online website. If you are affiliated with an institution that is an online subscriber to Telos, you have free access to our complete online archive. If not, you can purchase 24-hour access to this and other Telos articles at a per-article rate. Follow the article link for more details.

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