I think what gets to me is the Orwellian nature of it all; that it’s a power play. If Confederate-worshippers can make it seem aggressively impolite to insist on straightforwardly, obviously true historical facts, then we can’t rely on facts to establish anything, which is exactly how politics has been feeling lately. Not, of course, that stamping out Civil War revisionism solves anything, but it’d make me feel better.
On one level, however, the people who say that the war was about “states’ rights” are correct, if we use revealed preferences to define “states’ rights” as “federal enforcement of the rights of racial minorities is illegitimate, while federal powers that might serve or protect the interests of wealthy southern whites should be interpreted as expansively as possible.” I think Ulysses S. Grant’s acid response to the idea that Southern opposition to Reconstruction reflected a principled resistance to the use of federal military authority characterizes actually existing doctrines of “states’ rights” nicely:
During my two terms of office the whole Democratic press, and the morbidly honest and “reformatory” portion of the Republican press, thought it horrible to keep U.S. troops stationed in the Southern States, and when they were called upon to protect the lives of negroes — as much citizens under the Constitution as if their skins were white — the country was scarcely large enough to hold the sound of indignation belched forth by them for some years. Now, however, there is no hesitation about exhausting the whole power of the government to suppress a strike on the slightest intimation that danger threatens.
Alternatively, I could cite three words: “Fugitive Slave Act.” Justice Harlan, as the Court’s sole defender of Congress’ authority to enact the Civil Rights Act of 1875, I believe you have some incisive thoughts about this:
With all respect for the opinion of others, I insist that the national legislature may, without transcending the limits of the Constitution, do for human liberty and the fundamental rights of American citizenship what it did, with the sanction of this court, for the protection of slavery and the rights of the masters of fugitive slaves. If fugitive slave laws, providing modes and prescribing penalties whereby the master could seize and recover his fugitive slave, were legitimate exercises of an implied power to protect and enforce a right recognized by the Constitution, why shall the hands of Congress be tied so that — under an express power, by appropriate legislation, to enforce a constitutional provision granting citizenship — it may not, by means of direct legislation, bring the whole power of this nation to bear upon States and their officers and upon such individuals and corporations exercising public functions as assume to abridge, impair, or deny rights confessedly secured by the supreme law of the land?
Strange how the federal authority southerners found in the Constitution in 1850 suddenly vanished after three amendments that explicitly expanded relevant federal powers had passed. Whatever could explain it?
So, in a sense, today’s Confederate nostalgists and apologists are part of a consistent tradition. “States’ rights” has always been an utter fraud.
…I wonder how long it will take this time for an after-the-fact Dunning School stooge to explain that running a typical 19th century government made Grant — the best civil rights president between Lincoln and LBJ — the Most Corrupt President Ever.