No one who lived through the civil rights movement of the 1960's will ever forget the sight of a grim faced, tight lipped George Wallace, then governor of Alabama, standing at the door of Foster Auditorium, University of Alabama. He stood there in order to block the entry of two black students, Vivian Malone Jones and James Hood.
The governor took the opportunity to give a speech on states’ rights, which for him were exemplified by the phrase "Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!"
Wallace had ignored Alabama Deputy Attorney General Katzenbach’s demand he move from the school house door. But when General Henry Graham, backed by the National Guard, commanded Wallace to step aside, saying, "Sir it is my sad duty to ask you to step aside under the order of the President of the United States," Wallace reluctantly complied.
Wallace’s intransigence concerning segregation and his coupling resistance to federal authority with an appeal to states rights as defined by the "right" to maintain segregation were part of a more than century long struggle to define the limitations of federal power. But from the beginning much of the rationale behind the attempt of states to maintain the constitutional balance of power between the federal government and states’ rights was based along morally reprehensible and completely unsustainable ethical fault lines.
So entrenched was the alliance of states’ rights with what amounted to maintenance of apartheid that some Southern Democrats attempted to found a short lived split-off from main stream Democrats who supported Harry Truman in 1948. Dixiecrats, as they were popularly termed, were white supremacists who believed in segregation, opposed racial integration and wanted to retain Jim Crow laws.
However, the renegade Dixiecrats managed once again to succeed in portraying anyone who believed in states’ rights and limits to federal power as inherently racist and without any moral or political credibility. Though they seized the party apparatus of several Southern states, their efforts were short lived.
That the ethical fault line was not consistently addressed by the writers of the U.S. constitution remains one of the tragedies of our great nation. For had the founders dealt with the issue of slavery and heeded their own call to universal human rights without making exception to that call, tacit and overt, the century and a half struggle for racial equality that followed their lapse in judgment might have been far less bloody and divisive. The states’ attempt to establish a balance between federal and states’ domains might have not been defined again and again by struggles over race. That this unsustainable ethical fault line existed and was reinforced well into the 1950's is a travesty.
But, also tragically, as the examples above illustrate, for well over a century and a half, the fight for states’ rights was often based on racial discrimination in varying forms. Starting with the defense of slavery, followed by the establishment and defense of Jim Crow laws and ending with defense of segregation of the races, many states found themselves on the losing side because of the immoral bases they chose for establishing and maintaining states’ power. Much of the time, the federal government had the moral high ground and stormed the states’ weak and shabby moral defenses.
How shabby and indefensible those defenses have been are summed up in a statement by the Vice President of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, who speaking for states’ rights, stated the rationale for secession in the following fashion:
The cornerstone of our new government rests upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition. Our new government is the first in the history of the world based upon this great physical, philosophical and moral truth.
The brilliant and prescient John Emerson Dalberg-Acton, an Englishman and a contemporary observer of American politics before, during and after the Civil War, on reading Stephens defense of states’ rights, accurately noted in his essay The Civil War in America: Its Place in History:
Here, then, was a society adopting inequality, not as the natural product of property, descent and merit, but as its very foundation...The Southern slave-owner was in contradiction to the two principles which animated the Democracy of the Northern States. He denied the absolute essential equality of all men in civil rights; and he denied the justice of the doctrine that the minority possesses nothing which is exempt from the control of the majority, because he knew that it is was incompatible with the domestic institution which was as sacred to him as the rights of property.
But Acton went on the identify something else other than the moral indefensibility of the establishment and maintenance of slavery as a basis for states’ rights. He correctly identified the fact that while the Southern and other slave states sought under faulty moral premises to protect themselves from federal expansion of power; the federal government, regardless of the high moral ground it occupied, did wish to expand its power and to make itself superior to all restraint by the states. States’ rights and true federalism, Acton noted, were noble concepts apart from the evils of slavery. The rights of self-governance were still worthy of protection. Otherwise, he wrote, Liberty would no longer consist of exemption of control but would "come to mean the right to exercise control."
He pointed out that Daniel Webster laid down the premise that the Union was not a covenant between the States and the federal government, but an unbreakable bond that could not be severed under any circumstance. Horace Greeley, editor of The Tribune, and a leading abolitionist went even further, proclaiming the doctrine that "The Union is not worth supporting in connection with the South." Webster’s and Greeley’s concepts permanently took away states’ rights of redress against incursion of the federal government into state affairs.
Acton concludes the stronger minded Republicans like Webster and Greeley "resolved to make themselves masters of the central government, for the purpose of coercing the south to submit to their political opinions. He noted the Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts confessed that ‘the object to be accomplished was this, for the free states to take possession of the government."
In other words, the immorality of slavery, the odium of Jim Crow laws and the apartheid of segregation, all civic moral problems which begged for moral solutions, became not only grave moral issues needing redress, but political tools in the hands of the central government to expand its power and to override the concept of states’ rights inherent in the Constitution–states’ inherent rights regardless of any faulty foundational arguments. Because of the treading on states’ rights, the doctrine of federalism suffered almost irreparable damage as moral authority buttressed by raw federal power destroyed states’ autonomy and much of self-government.
In sum: The issue of race would take precedence in the struggle of the states against the overreach of federal power and would become for the central government a virtually unassailable moral bastion which served a dual purpose: the righteous purpose of providing equal rights to all US citizens regardless of race and the purpose of expanding of federal authority while crushing states’ rights.
Part II: The Distortion of the Moral Imperative of Racial Equality
Part III: Racial Equality and Immigration