Understanding States' Rights and the 10th Amendment

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In American government, states’ rights are the rights and powers reserved by the state governments rather than the national government according to the U.S. Constitution. From the Constitutional Convention in 1787 to the Civil War in 1861 to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, to today’s marijuana legalization movement, the question of the rights of the states to govern themselves has been the focus of the American political landscape for well over two centuries.

Key Takeaways: States' Rights

  • States’ rights refer to the political rights and powers granted to the states of the United States by the U.S. Constitution.
  • Under the doctrine of states’ rights, the federal government is not allowed to interfere with the powers of the states reserved or implied to them by the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
  • In issues such as enslavement, civil rights, gun control, and marijuana legalization, conflicts between states’ rights and the powers of the federal government have been a part of civic debate for over two centuries.

The doctrine of states’ rights holds that the federal government is barred from interfering with certain rights “reserved” to the individual states by the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The 10th Amendment

The debate over states’ rights started with the writing of the Constitution and Bill of Rights. During the Constitutional Convention, the Federalists, led by John Adams, argued for a powerful federal government, while the Anti-federalists, led by Patrick Henry, opposed the Constitution unless it contained a set of amendments specifically listing and ensuring certain rights of the people and the states. Fearing that the states would fail to ratify the Constitution without it, the Federalists agreed to include the Bill of Rights.

In establishing American government’s power-sharing system of federalism, the Bill of Rights' 10th Amendment holds that all rights and powers not specifically reserved to Congress by Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution or to be shared concurrently by the federal and state governments are reserved by either the states or by the people.

In order to prevent the states from claiming too much power, the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause (Article VI, Clause 2) holds that all laws enacted by the state governments must comply with the Constitution, and that whenever a law enacted by a state conflicts with a federal law, the federal law must be applied.

The Alien and Sedition Acts

The issue of states’ rights versus the Supremacy Clause was first tested in 1798 when the Federalist-controlled Congress enacted the Alien and Sedition Acts.

Anti-federalists Thomas Jefferson and James Madison believed the Acts’ restrictions on freedom of speech and freedom of the press violated the Constitution. Together, they secretly wrote the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions supporting states’ rights and calling on the state legislatures to nullify federal laws they considered unconstitutional. Madison, however, would later come to fear that such unchecked applications of states’ rights could weaken the union, and argued that in ratifying the Constitution, the states had yielded their sovereignty rights to the federal government.

The Issue of States’ Rights in the Civil War

While enslavement and its discontinuance are the most visible, the question of states’ rights was the underlying cause of the Civil War. Despite the overarching reach of the Supremacy Clause, proponents of states’ rights like Thomas Jefferson continued to believe the states should have the right to nullify federal acts within their boundaries.

In 1828 and again in 1832, Congress enacted protective trade tariffs, which while helping the industrial northern states, hurt the agricultural southern states. Outraged by what it called the “Tariff of Abominations,” the South Carolina legislature, on November 24, 1832, enacted an Ordinance of Nullification declaring the federal tariffs of 1828 and 1832 “null, void, and no law, nor binding upon this State, its officers or citizens.”

On December 10, 1832, President Andrew Jackson responded by issuing a “Proclamation to the People of South Carolina,” demanding that the state observe the Supremacy Clause and threatening to send federal troops to enforce the tariffs. After Congress passed a compromise bill reducing the tariffs in the southern states, the South Carolina legislature rescinded its Ordinance of Nullification on March 15, 1832.

While it made President Jackson a hero to nationalists, the so-called Nullification Crisis of 1832 reinforced the growing feeling among Southerners that they would continue to be vulnerable to the Northern majority as long as their states remained a part of the union.

Over the next three decades, the main battle over states’ rights shifted from economics to the practice of enslavement. Did the southern states, whose largely agricultural economy depended on the stolen labor of enslaved people, have the right to maintain this practice in defiance of federal laws abolishing it?

By 1860, that question, along with the election of anti-enslavement President Abraham Lincoln, drove 11 southern states to secede from the union. Though secession was not intended to create an independent nation, Lincoln viewed it as an act of treason conducted in violation of both the Supremacy Clause and federal law. 

Civil Rights Movement

From the day in 1866, when the U.S. Congress passed America’s first civil rights law, public and legal opinions have been divided on whether the federal government overrides states’ rights in attempting to ban racial discrimination nationwide. Indeed, key provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment dealing with racial equality were largely ignored in the South until the 1950s.

During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, southern politicians who supported the continuation of racial segregation and enforcement of state-level “Jim Crow” laws denounced anti-discrimination laws like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as federal interference with states’ rights.

Even after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, several southern states passed “Interposition Resolutions” contending that the states retained the right to nullify the federal laws.

Current States Rights Issues

As an inherent byproduct of federalism, questions of states’ rights will undoubtedly continue to be a part of American civic debate for years to come. Two highly visible examples of current states’ rights issues include marijuana legalization and gun control.

Marijuana Legalization

While at least 10 states have enacted laws allowing their residents to possess, grow, and sell marijuana for recreational and medical use, the possession, production, and sale of marijuana continues to be a violation of federal drug laws. Despite previously rolling back an Obama-era hands-off approach to prosecuting violations of federal marijuana laws in pot-legal states, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions clarified on March 8, 2018 that federal law enforcement officers would go after dealers and drug gangs, rather than casual users.

Gun Control

Both the federal and state governments have been enacting gun control laws for over 180 years. Due to an increase in incidents of gun violence and mass shootings, state gun control laws are now often more restrictive than federal laws. In these cases, gun rights advocates often argue that the states have actually exceeded their rights by ignoring both the Second Amendment and the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution.

In the 2008 case of District of Columbia v. Heller, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a District of Columbia law completely banning its citizens from possessing handguns violated the Second Amendment. Two years later, the Supreme Court ruled that its Heller decision applied to all U.S. states and territories.

Other current states’ rights issues include same-sex marriage, the death penalty, and assisted suicide.

Sources and Further Reference

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Longley, Robert. "Understanding States' Rights and the 10th Amendment." ThoughtCo, Dec. 6, 2021, thoughtco.com/states-rights-4582633. Longley, Robert. (2021, December 6). Understanding States' Rights and the 10th Amendment. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/states-rights-4582633 Longley, Robert. "Understanding States' Rights and the 10th Amendment." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/states-rights-4582633 (accessed February 1, 2023).