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  • "Tell Us Something about State Rights"Northern Republicans, States' Rights, and the Coming of the Civil War
  • Michael E. Woods (bio)

In August 1857, Ohio governor Salmon P. Chase visited Cincinnati, ostensibly to discuss a state treasury scandal. His main purpose was to stump for reelection. Chase was chosen as Ohio's first Republican governor in 1855, but his two-year term would soon expire, and he came to Cincinnati to solicit votes. Like other Republicans, Chase wasted no opportunity to discuss slavery; before finishing his late-summer speech, he examined that "great question that constantly absorbs our thoughts, and demands our continual attention and enlists our feeling." Alluding to the slave power theory he had long expounded, Chase warned that "the Federal Government is reduced to be the despotism of a slave oligarchy." The evidence was plain: the Fugitive Slave Act, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Dred Scott decision—all reflected slaveholders' insidious influence on federal policy.

Suddenly, a voice from the crowd shouted: "Tell us something about State Rights." Chase, having planned to do precisely that, was unfazed. "I am bringing you to that question," he promised. "I will show that these aggressions of Slavery encroach upon State Rights; that they have invaded the sovereignty of Ohio." Exploring an issue that had shaped his career since he defended fugitive slaves as a young Cincinnati attorney, Chase blasted proslavery federal policy as overbearing and unconstitutional. He charged southern slave-catchers and federal officers with violating Ohio's laws and sovereignty. He affirmed, "I believe with Jefferson, that the cardinal principles of our Union is the preservation of the reserved rights of the States; and … if we wish to maintain our liberties, we must have our laws obeyed." The alternative was degradation to a status "worse than the veriest slaves of European despotisms." Chase closed with paeans to frugal government, free soil, defeat of the slave power, and civil rights for free blacks, and "retired amid hearty applause."1 He won a second term.

Historians should ask antebellum Republicans to "tell us something about state rights," too. The exchange between Chase and his eager constituent reveals much about Republicans' rise to power and recasts the [End Page 242] relationship between states' rights and Civil War causation, a topic plagued by threadbare clichés. Despite historians' best efforts, the notion that conflict over states' rights, rather than slavery, triggered secession and war remains widespread.2 Neo-Confederates make it a tenet of political faith. But it also permeates mainstream discussions, from college essays to the Huffington Post.3 Narratives of Civil War causation that supplant slavery with states' rights rest on two equally weak assumptions: that the subjects can be compartmentalized and that states' rights was a southern doctrine. Scholars have demolished the first postulate far more thoroughly than the second. Excellent studies, old and new, demonstrate slavery's pervasive influence in debates over everything from tariffs to territorial expansion.4 Slavery was a brutal part of the context in which theorists wrote, orators spoke, and voters cast ballots. Excise slavery, and American political history becomes unintelligible. White southerners would have been fools indeed to ignore the millions of enslaved people living around them. They were not fools. "Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery," declared Mississippi secessionists. "We must either submit to degradation, and to the loss of property worth four billions of money, or we must secede."5 But the association of states' rights with the South remains resilient and can distort our view of sectional politics. Even the argument that states' rights was merely a shabby cover for proslavery interests lends a sliver of credibility to narratives that pit southern secessionists against Yankee centralizers.

This essay challenges both assumptions by exploring why and how antebellum Republicans, members of a primarily northern antislavery party, employed states' rights. They used states' rights in two ways: as a practical strategy and a rhetorical resource. Pragmatically, Republicans deployed the doctrine against specific proslavery policies, particularly as slaveholders demanded increasing federal support during the 1850s. Republicans believed fidelity to states' rights would thwart the slave power, denationalize slavery, and hasten its demise. States' rights would preserve free soil and protect...


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