After the Revolution, the American central government operated under the Articles of Confederation which held state sovereignty supreme and created a very weak national government. That approach proved ineffectual in dealing with national defense and interstate commerce, two areas vital to the new nation’s survival. As a consequence, Congress threw out the Articles of Confederation and started over.
The Constitution that Congress drafted gave a nod to state sovereignty but created a strong federal government with final authority in the areas of national defense, foreign policy, and interstate commerce. It forced states to recognize the lawful acts of their fellow states and gave the federal government authority to levy its own taxes without state approval. The central government worked much better, but the tension between federal authority and state sovereignty continued to simmer. The issue came to a boil in the middle of the 19th century and erupted in the Civil War – a war fought over the fundamental question of how to interpret and apply the federal constitution.
At the time it was ratified in 1789, the federal constitution was seen as a wall around the central government defining the limits of that government’s authority. Hemming it in, as it were, and restraining it from subsuming the authority of the states. But by the mid-1800s, life in the United States was quite different from the previous century. Industrialization was well on its way to transforming the economies of most western nations. The issues of commerce, foreign policy, and national defense had acquired a subtle complexity.
States in the southern half of the country were situated in a region where soil and climate conditions favored agricultural production. Cotton and tobacco grew well there. Southerners found a lucrative market for both commodities in Europe. Exports grew and the economies of the Southern states flourished.
By contrast, states in the northern half of the country were located in a region where conditions were less favorable to agriculture but more conducive to emerging industrialization. However, cost and quality issues hampered the North’s access to European markets. If industrialization was to continue in the United States, northern industry would have to find a profitable place to sell its goods. The southern states were a natural market for those goods, but as the South’s export trade to Europe increased their import trade did as well – partly as a matter of convenience but also because the southern plantation culture saw itself as a reflection of European aristocracy which it reinforced through the purchase of European wares. To remedy the situation, President Lincoln proposed a tariff that would have effectively ended Southern trade with Europe.
Whether Lincoln could have rallied enough support to win a war over the issues of trade and taxation is questionable. After all, these were the identical issues that lay at the heart of the Revolutionary War. Arguments advanced in support of colonial independence were easily transferable to the economic issues that the South faced in the 18th century. But there was a twist to the complexity of these issues. The economic advantage held by southern agriculture was obtained on the backs of slaves.
In order to gain approval of the current Constitution, delegates and drafters had to sidestep the great moral issue of slavery. To do that, they relegated it to the control of the individual states. Those who were bent on securing approval of the new constitution viewed the move as a way of securing ratification. Those who valued state sovereignty saw it as a victory for their cause. In reality, the treatment of slavery in the Constitution put the issue of state sovereignty to its most crucial test – the morality test. Few, if any, state sovereignty proponents realized that the future of their argument for interpreting the Constitution hung in the balance.
All government, regardless of its structure, rests on the moral authority of its leaders – their ability to do what is right, even when it means opposing the interests of those whom they were elected to serve. Even monarchs and dictators derive their political power from their moral authority. That has not always been readily obvious but the steady erosion of monarchical forms of government attests to it, as does the collapse of communist governments in all but a few nations. They failed not because the form of government was inept but because their leaders failed the moral test. The Southern Confederacy met with the same fate.
Had leaders of the southern states exercised their moral authority properly and disbanded the practice of slavery, the map of North America might look quite different. Instead, they put the force and effect of their central government squarely behind the ownership of slaves and perpetuation of the plantation lifestyle slavery afforded. With it they staked the future of state sovereignty. When Lincoln finally made the abolishment of slavery the focus of the war, both the Confederacy and the notion of state sovereignty as the controlling doctrine for constitutional interpretation were doomed.
A century later, the state sovereignty argument resurfaced as a defense to state-enforced racial segregation. What little remained of the argument was sacrificed on the altar of prejudice and bigotry. Attempts by southern states to defend institutional segregation offered convincing proof that state leaders could not be trusted to appropriately exercise their moral authority.