South Wasn’t Always Fan of States Rights

“The strange, often forgotten, history of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850,” by ERIC FONER in

“Whenever I lecture to non-academic audiences about the Civil War era, someone is bound to insist that the South fought for states’ rights rather than the long-term survival of slavery. In an extreme version of this view, Abraham Lincoln was not the Great Emancipator but a tyrant, the creator of the leviathan national state that essentially enslaved white Americans. This reading of the conflict is why a remarkable number of libertarians, self-proclaimed defenders of individual freedom, sympathize with the Old South, and why some even make excuses for slavery. But this history omits one important part of antebellum history…When it came to runaway slaves, the white South, usually vocal in defense of local rights, favored robust national action.”

After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, many runaways fled to Canada, which refused to extradite them. “The spectacle of individuals fleeing to another country to enjoy freedom mocked the prevailing self-image of the United States as an asylum for those denied liberty in foreign lands.”

“…Slavery was the fundamental cause of the Civil War—a point made straightforwardly by Abraham Lincoln in his great second inaugural address. But for those conservatives and libertarians of today who trace their intellectual lineage to the Old South’s supposed commitment to states’ rights, it’s inconvenient to remember the region’s motivation as the preservation of slavery. So I expect to continue to see that lone raised hand, in the back of the lecture hall, ready to protest that the war was all about states’ rights—despite what the historical record shows.”

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Eric Foner is Dewitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University and the author of  The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. His most recent book is Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad (W.W. Norton and Co.).

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