It’s one of those terms that gets thrown around so easily: states’ rights. Across the ideological spectrum, the principle has been invoked by many causes in many places for centuries. Don’t worry, we’ll cut to the historical chase.
Government in America is like the layers of a cake. The national government is supreme in its areas of responsibility, waging war for example, but the state governments have their areas of sovereignty. Think of driving laws or professional licensing for occupations like teachers or dentists. But what happens when the two conflict? Can a state government, on its own, defy an act of Congress?
States’ rights have a tortured history
Slavery was the ultimate states’ rights issue.
The Constitution is at odds itself too: The supremacy clause means that federal laws and court decisions are supreme over the states, but the 10th Amendment says that states are free to make any laws not specifically prohibited. So if the federal government sets a minimum wage, could a state refuse to enforce it? Can Montana refuse EPA rules on car emissions?
It’s one of those enduring issues that form the fabric of American society: how much and how many powers should the national government have over the people directly, and how much freedom should the states’ have? In what ways is America a consolidated nation, and in what ways is it a league of separate societies?
The question vexed colonists during the Revolution, plagued us during the period of Confederation, and detonated into huge controversies under the Constitution itself. Just picture fully loaded Army Rangers guarding black students in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957 when the state refused a federal court order to integrate its schools. There’s an acrimonious battle if there ever was one.
Here’s our earnest attempt to bring some clarity to the issue and maybe even whet your appetite for more. Citizenship requires the intellectual commitment of a lifetime.
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