The doctrine of states’ rights, a recurring theme of South Carolina political thought, is composed of two elements: a belief that the U.S. Constitution is a compact formed by states that retained their sovereign status; and a belief that powers not specifically granted by the Constitution to the national government remain in state hands. The second principle derives from the Tenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which states that “the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.” State-reserved powers were designed to discourage undue concentrations of power in a distant national government. On May 23, 1788, the South Carolina ratification convention strongly recommended passage of such an amendment.
During the sectional controversies before the Civil War, John C. Calhoun contended that states as sovereigns could nullify federal laws that exceeded the powers granted to the national government by the compact. Calhoun cautioned that this powerful instrument of interposition should be used only as a last resort when an unconstitutional act of the national government was “clear and palpable” and “highly dangerous.” On November 24, 1832, a South Carolina convention declared the federal tariffs of 1828 and 1832 “null and void” amid charges that they would be economically devastating to the South by protecting northern manufacturers by raising levies on imported goods. This interposition was rescinded following a compromise tariff negotiated by Calhoun, but an 1833 convention nullified the “Force Bill,” which President Andrew Jackson had lobbied through Congress to back enforcement of federal laws.
Much of the battle over federal power versus states’ rights was fought over slavery and racial equality. In 1850–1851 South Carolina opposed congressional attempts to block the spread of slavery to new territories by arguing that power over slavery was reserved to the states. After the Compromise of 1850 admitted California as a free state, a South Carolina convention claimed the right to secede but declined to exercise that right when it became clear that other states would not follow.
Secession finally came on December 20, 1860. The Constitution of the Confederate States of America (March 11, 1861) was permeated with states’ rights provisions. The preamble, announcing that each state was “acting in its sovereign and independent character,” implied that states did not surrender their sovereignty to the new body. An extreme states’ rights provision permitted a state to impeach Confederate officials whose duties were confined to that state. State officials frustrated Confederate attempts to control state troops and slave labor by contending that the power was reserved to them. States’ rights were an inspiration for the birth of the Confederacy and a bane of its existence.
The presidential election of 1876 and subsequent Compromise of 1877, the end of Reconstruction, and narrow court interpretations of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments led to federal abandonment of civil rights enforcement and a corresponding reduction in states’ rights rhetoric. States’ rights forces took the field in 1948 when fears of President Harry Truman’s advocacy of legislation to prevent racial discrimination in employment and voting spawned the States’ Rights Democratic Party, or Dixiecrats. The Dixiecrats ran South Carolina governor Strom Thurmond for president, but Truman prevailed. The Dixiecrats carried only Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina, but the campaign created forces that undermined the Democratic Party’s dominance and eventually led to a two-party South.
The Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education (including Briggs v. Elliott from South Carolina) outlawed racial segregation in the public schools and again provoked states’ rights arguments. In 1956 southern congressmen, led by Thurmond, issued the “Southern Manifesto,” declaring, “we decry the Supreme Court’s encroachment on the rights reserved to the States and to the people, contrary to established law, and to the Constitution.” That same year a resolution of the South Carolina General Assembly charged that the Supreme Court had usurped the states’ role in the constitutional amendment process by fashioning new principles to declare separate but equal schools invalid. The resolution proclaimed that South Carolina as a “loyal and sovereign State of the Union will exercise the powers reserved to it under the Constitution to judge for itself of the infractions [of the Constitution by the Supreme Court].” Although this could be interpreted as asserting a right to defy the Supreme Court’s ruling, the resolution stopped short of declaring it null and void.
Such states’ rights maneuvers stiffened resistance but did not halt desegregation. Interposition had become more of a relic in the museum of constitutional curiosities than an effective weapon against encroaching federal power. The right to political equality also became a galvanic force. In South Carolina v. Katzenbach (1966), states’ rights arguments failed to convince the Supreme Court that federal laws implementing the constitutional prohibition of racial discrimination in voter qualifications violated power reserved to the state. Equal protection for all races prevailed as the supreme law of the land.
McDonald, Forrest. States’ Rights and the Union: Imperium in Imperio, 1776–1876. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2000.
Owsley, Frank Lawrence. State Rights in the Confederacy. 1925. Reprint, Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1961.
Sinha, Manisha. The Counterrevolution of Slavery: Politics and Ideology in Antebellum South Carolina. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.