states' rights, in U.S. history, doctrine based on the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution, which states,
"The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."
The term embraces both the doctrine of absolute state sovereignty that was espoused by John C. Calhoun and that of the so-called strict constructionist interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, which reserves to the state governments all powers not specifically granted by that document to the federal government. A states' rights controversy is probably inherent in the federal structure of the United States government.
In the Early Days of the Union
Immediately after the adoption of the Constitution, controversy arose as to how to interpret the enumerated powers granted the federal government. Alexander Hamilton and the Federalist party favored a broad interpretation, which meant a strong central government deriving its authority from implied as well as express powers contained in the Constitution. Thomas Jefferson and his followers, "strict constructionists," insisted that all powers not specifically granted the federal government be reserved to the states. The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, written by Jefferson and James Madison, represent the first formulation of the doctrine of states' rights. The second important manifestation of states' rights occurred in New England among the Federalists in opposition, curiously enough, to Jefferson. His party, while in power, brought about (1803) the Louisiana Purchase, passed the Embargo Act of 1807 and other nonintercourse measures, and later declared war against Great Britain. All of these actions met with resistance in New England, and the War of 1812 finally led to the calling of the Hartford Convention of 1814–15, in which New Englanders officially expressed their hostility to the federal government.
The fight over the constitutionality of the Bank of the United States made the central states—Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Ohio in particular—the next defenders of states' rights. The points at issue here were settled in McCulloch v. Maryland by decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, dominated by John Marshall, whose broad interpretation of the Constitution laid the foundations of strong central government. The doctrine was revived in the conflict between the federal government and Georgia as to which had jurisdiction over Native American tribes within Georgia's boundaries, and Georgia for a time defied the federal administration. Even more acute was the situation that developed in South Carolina in opposition to the tariff acts of 1828 and 1832, when, under the leadership of John C. Calhoun, South Carolina passed its ordinance of nullification. Calhoun's doctrine of absolute state sovereignty was the most extreme of states' rights theories.
A Justification for Secession
Although proslavery forces are usually identified with a strong states' rights position, the legislature of Wisconsin adopted (1859) resolutions defending state sovereignty after the Supreme Court overruled the Wisconsin courts and upheld the conviction of an abolitionist editor for violating the fugitive slave law. Ultimately the proslavery states used states' rights doctrines to justify their secession. Eleven Southern states seceded in 1860–61 and formed the Confederacy, in which, fittingly, the doctrine of states' rights was upheld by such governors as Joseph E. Brown and Zebulon B. Vance. This undoubtedly contributed to the Confederate defeat in the Civil War, just as the disposition of some of the Thirteen Colonies to act in complete independence of the Continental Congress had hampered the American Revolution.
In the Twentieth Century
Although the Union victory in the Civil War definitively ended the possibility of nullification and secession, the states' rights doctrine did not die. In the second half of the 20th cent. it was vigorously revived by Southern opponents of the federal civil-rights program. In the presidential election of 1948, a Southern states' rights party (the Dixiecrats) was organized with J. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina as its candidate, and it carried four Southern states. The desegregation controversy of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s engendered many states' rights statements by Southern political leaders such as Gov. George C. Wallace of Alabama. In 1962, federal troops were used at the Univ. of Mississippi to enforce a federal court ruling that ordered the admission of a black student to the university. Although the doctrine of states' rights is usually associated with the Southern wing of the Democratic party, it is not exclusive to any particular section or political party. The vast increase in the powers of the federal government at the expense of the states, resulting from the incapacity of the states to deal with the complex problems of modern industrial civilization, has led to renewed interest in states' rights. In the 1980s and 90s, states' rights proponents, under the banner of "federalism" or "the New Federalism," attacked the great increase in federal government powers that had occurred since the New Deal. On taking power of both houses of Congress in the 1994 elections, conservative Republicans proclaimed the beginning of a process of "devolution," with much power reverting to the states; several years later, however, it was clear that reality had not met this prediction. State sovereignty has been affirmed and expanded, however, by recent, often narrowly decided, decisions of the Supreme Court.
See C. Warren, The Supreme Court and Sovereign States (1924); F. L. Owsley, State Rights in the Confederacy (1925, repr. 1961); A. T. Mason, The States Rights Debate (2d ed. 1972); R. E. Ellis, The Union at Risk: Jacksonian Democracy, States' Rights and the Nullification Crisis (1987); F. McDonald, States' Rights and the Union: Imperium in Imperio, 1776–1876 (2001).