States' Rights and the Civil War: A True Turning Point

Chuck Colson

States' Rights and the Civil War: A True Turning Point

For the past two days, we’ve been talking about the Civl War and slavery. But to say that the war was caused by, or was all about, slavery would be inaccurate. There was also a profound disagreement between North and South about where states’ rights began, and where they ended.

There should be no doubt in any Christian’s mind that the South was wrong on slavery. No proper understanding of Scripture -- especially Genesis chapter 1, where we learn that all men are created in the image of God -- could allow us to sanction the buying and selling of human beings as property.

Nonetheless, many Southerners of the time were honestly, conscientiously, and prudentially defending states’ rights and federalism. Remember, at the time, many Americans felt themselves to be New Yorkers or Virginians first, Americans second. The nation was viewed by most as a union of sovereign states, which is why people said, “The United States ARE,” as opposed to “the United States IS.”

And Southern threats of secession were not unique in American history. Those of you who paid attention in history class will remember that in 1832, President Andrew Jackson was prepared to use force against South Carolina when that state nullified federal tariffs on imported goods. And before that, many New Englanders considered secession as the nation engaged in the War of 1812.

Sadly, by 1861, the Southern states were invoking a legitimate political position, but in defense of a great moral evil. And, sadly still, the same states’ rights argument was used for the next 100 years to prop up Jim Crow laws and deny full civil rights to African Americans.

Nonetheless, as Christians, we then, and do now, have a legitimate interest in limiting the power of an overly powerful federal government. We know, given man’s fallen nature, that concentrating too much power in one place is an invitation to tyranny.

So, we ought to agree that the South had a legitimate position on this point. The idea of a limited central government, after all, owes much to the Christian doctrines of “subsidiarity” and “sphere sovereignty.” Both protect the roles of family, churches, and private associations in society and assert that governance is to be managed closest to the people. That is specifically why John Calvin favored a republican form of government.

But look where we find ourselves today: As a colleague of mine commented, the once-sovereign states have been reduced to little more than counties. Otherwise, how is it that 31 states of the union have declared that marriage is to be reserved to one man and one woman, and yet, in an instant, the federal judiciary can make so-called same-sex “marriage” the law of the land?

Or take health care. Instead of a “one-size-fits-all” approach, might we not prefer to the federal government make block grants for the states to determine which system or systems work best for them? Vermont is on the verge of a single-payer health care system. Well, bully for Vermont. So long as the other states can adopt their own approaches as best fit the needs of their citizens.

The Civil War was a turning point for America. The slaves were freed, the Union was preserved. And it’s a fair question to ask if the conflict that began at Fort Sumter 150 years ago might also have been the beginning of the end of a truly federal form of government. Let’s hope there’s still time to preserve the legitimate position of the South.

This article published on May 27, 2011. Chuck Colson's daily BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print. 

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