States' Rights, Southern Hypocrisy, and the Crisis of the Union

31 Pages Posted: 17 Jul 2012

See all articles by Paul Finkelman

Paul Finkelman

Gratz College; Albany Law School

Date Written: July 16, 2012


Despite the almost universal understanding of serious historians that slavery and racial subordination were at the root of secession and the Civil War — and the almost endless statements of Confederate leaders supporting this analysis — a considerable number of Americans — including some legal scholars — cling to the belief that secession was about “states’ rights,” and that Southerners left the Union to escape a tyrannical national government that was trampling on their rights. Advocates of this old fashioned, and simultaneously modern, neo-Confederate ideology rarely discuss the substance of Southern states’ rights claims, because they will either lead to an intellectual dead end, or lead back to slavery. This article examines the relationship of secession to states’ rights to secession. This relationship is often misunderstood, especially by those who argue that the slave states left the Union to protect their states’ rights. The Southern states did not leave the Union because their “rights” were being trampled on by the national government. The states that left the union never asserted that they were being denied their “states’ rights” — that the national government had obliterated the lines been between national power and state power. Nor did the Southern states complain that the national government was too powerful and so it threatened the sovereignty of the state governments. On the contrary, as I set out below, the Southern states mostly complained that the Northern states were asserting their states’ rights and that the national government was not powerful enough to counter these Northern claims. Similarly, the secessionists did not complain that an oppressive national government was infringing on the civil liberties on Southern citizens; rather the complaint was that the national government refused to suppress the civil liberties of Northern citizens.

Suggested Citation

Finkelman, Paul, States' Rights, Southern Hypocrisy, and the Crisis of the Union (July 16, 2012). Akron Law Review, Vol. 45, No. 2, 2012, Available at SSRN:

Paul Finkelman (Contact Author)

Gratz College ( email )

7605 Old York Road
Melrose Park, PA 19027
United States

Albany Law School

United States

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