Wayne Olson’s recent letter claims that the Civil War was fought over “state’s rights and nothing more.” I disagree.

Serious conflicts in our political system are virtually never about abstract powers of government. Instead, as the scope of conflict tells us, the arguments are virtually always about policies, but people try to shift issues to where they will get what they want (see Elizabeth Fredericksen, et. al., The Politics of Intergovernmental Relations). Southerners opposed a national abolition of slavery, not national power in the abstract.

The slavery issue erupted during debates over the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Missouri Compromise, the Compromise of 1850, the Dred Scott case, and the Kansas Nebraska Act, and in the early years of the Republican Party. Moreover, secession resolutions passed by southern state legislatures generally discuss preserving slavery at length.

Consider, too, West Virginia’s secession from Virginia. The mountain country of the original Virginia had few slaves, and the mountain residents saw little reason to secede and fight for slavery. People in the mountains of other southern states likely were less supportive of the war.

Lastly, after Reconstruction ended, southern whites pushed blacks out of the electorate and used the criminal justice system to create a new version of slavery. Prisoners, who rarely received fair trials, were rented out to landowners, mine owners and other businesses.

The prisoners received little or no pay for their work. Later on, many southern officials who clung to state’s rights on civil rights issues were glad to receive federal aid for highways, education programs, and later, health care.

David Nice


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