We live in interesting times. We have an African American president, which leads the Washington Post to think anew about the causes of the Civil War. And that same president is getting flak from conservatives over economic policies, which has led the governor of Texas to threaten secession. Sort of.
“I believe the federal government has become oppressive,” Texas governor Rick Perry said at a press conference recently. “I believe it’s become oppressive in its size, its intrusion into the lives of its citizens, and its interference with the affairs of our state.”
The governor added, “We think it’s time to draw the line in the sand and tell Washington that no longer are we going to accept their oppressive hand in the state of Texas.”
Notice that Perry doesn’t actually mention secession; others have been happy to do that for him. In the meantime, this leads everyone (the press, bloggers, your dinner guests) to cry Civil War, setting up any discussion of the issue in terms of the 1860s.
But is that an accurate way to think of it?
I’m going to say “no,” but if you disagree, feel free to chime in. The South used states’ rights as a rallying cry before and during the Civil War, but this does not at all imply that Southerners thought the federal government to be oppressively large and intrusive. In fact, they were more than happy for the federal government to be strong—so long as it was strong on behalf of slavery. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the U.S. Supreme Court decision Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) were both the work of a strong federal government and both were hailed by Southerners.
Southerners were incensed by the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 because they believed he would use the power of the federal government to attack slavery by curtailing its expansion. Secession in 1860 and 1861, then, was an expression of a state’s right to leave the Union and not a state’s protest against the power of the federal government.
This is why it doesn’t make a lot of sense to say that arguments over states’ rights caused the Civil War. Yes, arguing over whether the states could leave the Union sparked the war, but why did they want to leave in the first place?