The US Constitution of 1787 did not enumerate the powers of the states. Article I, Section 8 laid out the powers of the national government in terms of congressional lawmaking authority and said that the national government would be limited to those powers. But some powers granted to the national government were extremely vague, creating the potential for the federal government to expand into areas such as commerce that had previously been the exclusive purview of the states. And since that time, these provisions, combined with Article VI, the National Supremacy Clause, have allowed national government power to expand at the expense of the states.
The Tenth Amendment, ratified as a part of the Bill of Rights in 1791, addressed the issue: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.” The phrase to the people remains something of a mystery, but the reserved to the states phraseology has provided the framework for constitutional and political arguments for a large role for states in the federal system. States have laid claim to “police powers”—powers to protect and promote citizens’ health, safety, morals, welfare, and convenience. Included within this broad area would be the gamut of domestic governmental activity, with no need to look at a state constitution for authorization—only for explicit prohibitions or limitations.
States’ rights advocates are as old as the Constitution. Beginning with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in the 1790s and continuing through the twenty-first-century governors of western states, constitutional and political arguments have suggested that the national government has exceeded its authority and capacity, intruding into the legitimate domain of the states.
Mississippi has been among the states in which political leaders most frequently and vigorously invoked the doctrine of states’ rights. In the 1820s and 1830s Mississippi was a bastion of Jacksonian Democrats, who strongly opposed centralizing tendencies in monetary policy and commercial regulation. Soon thereafter, the issue of slavery became the focus of states’ righters. Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 election to the presidency was a blow to the states’ rights movement and the institution of slavery, and Mississippi quickly followed South Carolina in claiming the ultimate state right: the right to secede from the Union.
The Civil War ended slavery but did not destroy the doctrine of states’ rights. Even before Reconstruction ended in 1877, Mississippi political leaders staked a claim to the authority to regulate race relations. In its 1890 Constitution Mississippi concocted devices to firmly establish racial segregation and to disfranchise the black population (then a substantial majority). For several decades in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the US Supreme Court sustained the power of the states to regulate most commercial and social relationships.
The Great Depression and the New Deal marked a shift away from state autonomy and toward an increasingly powerful national government. National responses to the economic crisis of the 1930s and the centralizing forces in marshaling economic as well as military power during World War II marked a significant expansion of national authority. However, until the 1950s, Mississippi and other southern states remained largely unaffected in their quest to preserve racial segregation and deny voting rights to blacks.
Mississippi’s power to control race relations did not face serious challenges until the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The federal courts, the president, and the US Congress gave new life to the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Led by Gov. Ross Barnett, Mississippi officials defended the “southern way of life,” often invoking the doctrine of states’ rights by contending that “state sovereignty” trumped the equal protection language of the Fourteenth Amendment.
The states’ rights doctrine is not dead, though virtually no one still contends that states have the right to secede from the Union. States outside the South occasionally invoke the doctrine. Oregon’s defense of its assisted suicide law and California’s defense of its more stringent fuel efficiency requirements represent modern examples of the old but persistent doctrine of states’ rights. In Mississippi, conservative responses to the Affordable Care Act and to Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 Supreme Court decision that overturned state laws against same-sex marriage, have included vehement defenses of states’ rights.
- James J. Kilpatrick, The Sovereign States: Notes of a Citizen of Virginia (1957)
- Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, Message from Mississippi (film, 1960)
- James F. Zimmerman, Contemporary American Federalism (1992)