When I lived in Texas, I occasionally had to listen to people espousing one of the Big Lies of U.S. History. Namely, “The Civil War wasn’t about slavery, it was about States’ Rights!” The South, says the narrative, was defending its rights against the oppression of Washington. (Stop me if this sounds familiar.)
It’s certainly true that, during the 1850s, several states
witnessed an unprecedented level of federal interference in their internal
affairs—thitherto considered sacrosanct. There were mass protests and even riots
against government law enforcement. In at least one case, the U.S. army marched
in and enforced, at gunpoint, a
flagrant violation of state law in favor of federal power (at the then-enormous
cost of $40,000). In another case, a woman killed her own daughter rather than
submit to the armed U.S. Marshals who stormed her house amidst gunfire. In yet
other cases, the locals broke into courtrooms or forcibly liberated prisoners
rather than see their laws violated.
The states whose right were thus trampled on were, of
course, all in the North
The laws in question were “personal liberty” laws, meant to
exclude slavery. The expansion of Federal muscle was in enforcing the Fugitive
Southerners, far from being oppressed by the jackbooted
thugs of Washington, cheered them on. Similarly, while Southern states
frequently invoked their right to “nullify” federal laws that weren’t to their
taste, they were outraged when Northern states tried to do the same thing.
And when war did break out--when seven southern states seceded rather than obey the results of a perfectly legal election, before Lincoln even took office--what was the intolerable, radical straw that broke the camel's back? What tyrannical principle was it that was so deeply embedded in the Republican platform that preemptive secession was the only way to defend Southern liberty?
It was this: that slavery should be left alone, but prevented from expanding.
Funny kid of oppression, that.