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States’ Rights

Last Updated: 2006

States’ rights is the philosophical governing belief, hearkening back to the Articles of Confederation, that state governments are equal to, and may override, national government powers.

The concept of states’ rights within the United States hearkens back to the founding of the nation, and can be seen to evolve within distinct eras of American history. With the Declaration of Independence, the newly created United States of America sought to develop governing structure. Designed to ensure that the power of government resided closest to the people, the Second Continental Congress drafted a document loosely binding the states. On July 9, 1778, representatives from 8 states signed the Articles of Confederation, which created a relatively weak central government. By keeping most of the governing powers within state governments, the Articles of Confederation symbolized the first expression of “states’ rights.”

The concept of states’ rights centers on the tension between power resting in the federal government versus that resting in the states. This battle over power within the states, as compared to power within the federal government, was expressed early in the debate over the U.S. Constitution, namely between Federalists, who sought a stronger national government, and Anti-Federalists, who sought to keep power within state governments. Several facets of the Constitution reflect the willingness to protect states’ authority and powers, most notably the Tenth Amendment, which reserves powers to the states and the people that are not given to the federal government, and the states’ equal representation within the U.S. Senate.

Throughout American history, states’ rights advocates have claimed that the federal government exceeded its authority. Such episodes as the Alien and Sedition Acts, the 1814 Hartford Convention, and the nullification and interposition crisis of 1828–32 led to the greatest expression of conflict over states’ rights: the Civil War of 1860–65. Following the Civil War, opponents of rights for the newly freed slaves took up the banner of states’ rights, primarily to reinforce restrictions and discriminatory tactics within the southern states, and to oppose federal intervention to end Jim Crow laws. States’ rights arguments were used most frequently to counter the twentieth-century Civil Rights movement. Following World War II, southern Democrats, disgruntled with both national political parties for adopting civil rights platforms, created the Dixiecrat Party and nominated then–South Carolina Governor J. Strom Thurmond for the presidency, who campaigned on states’ rights to protect segregation. Twenty years later, Alabama Governor George C. Wallace, an avowed segregationist and states’ rights proponent, ran on the American Independent Party ticket. Following Wallace’s failed attempts at the White House, states’ rights arguments based on racial undertones declined during the 1970’s. President Ronald Reagan’s calls for devolving federal power back to the states used “states’ rights” in fiscal federalism terms.

Modern expressions of states’ rights have manifested in the rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court under Chief Justice William Rehnquist. Some scholars believe that a return to dual federalism signals a renewed interest in protecting states’ rights when compared to federal government legislation over certain policy areas. In rulings declaring unconstitutional the national Gun-Free Schools Zone Act, the Violence against Women Act, and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Rehnquist Court has been characterized as bolstering states’ rights arguments and reshaping the political balance between the national and state governments. States’ rights arguments were also heard during the 2000 presidential election between the power of states to determine whether to recount votes or the federal government’s superiority to end the recount.

SEE ALSO: Age DiscriminationAlien and Sedition ActsArticles of ConfederationCivil Rights Act of 1965Civil WarContinental CongressDeclaration of IndependenceElectionsFederalistsFiscal FederalismGovernors and FederalismHartford ConventionIntergovernmental RelationsInterpositionNullificationPolitical PartiesSovereigntyTenth AmendmentU.S. Supreme CourtWallace, George


Samuel Beer, To Make a Nation: The Rediscovery of American Federalism (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1993); Mark Robert Killenbeck, Tenth Amendment and State Sovereignty: Constitutional History and Contemporary Issues (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001); Forrest McDonald, States’ Rights and the Union: Imperium in Imperio, 1776–1876 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2000); and David C. Nice and Patricia Fredericksen, The Politics of Intergovernmental Relations (Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1995).