This weekend’s Ku Klux Klan rally outside the South Carolina capitol building highlights the poignancy and divisiveness inherent in flying the Confederate battle flag, a symbol often associated with racial intolerance. Predictably, Confederate apologists have trotted out the “states’ rights” explanation for the Civil War as the race-neutral reason for the South’s rebellion—thus the flag represents something other than racism. Indeed, a recent Pew Research Center poll found that, 150 years after the Civil War, 48 percent of Americans (a plurality) still assert it was mainly about states’ rights.
This justification is inaccurate. When it came to slavery, the Union, not the Confederacy, was the true guardian of state autonomy in the antebellum era. After all, how is it that concerns over the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, a federal law enforced by federal agents (or compelled state agents), could possibly be a states’ rights issue? It is long past time to put the contrary myth to rest, especially when the true doctrine of states’ rights is an important, laudable ideal enshrined in the federal Constitution.
Read the rest on The Federalist here.