"The Sacred Cause of State Rights": Theories of Union and Sovereignty in the Antebellum North
Esh, Christian R.
Belz, Herman J.
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"The Sacred Cause of State Rights" examines the problem of federalism as the central issue in U.S. constitutional history before the Civil War. Drawing on Keith Whittington's insight into the political construction of the Constitution, the argument focuses on the role of state legislatures and courts, particularly in the North, relative to their claims of co-equal authority to the national government in the struggle to determine constitutional meaning. The project seeks to rescue the political history of federalism from the post-Civil War view that the Union had been polarized into patriotic nationalists and traitorous defenders of state rights. In fact, most Northerners occupied a middle ground between the arch-nationalism of Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun's exposition of nullification. Martin Van Buren appealed to Northern moderates when he fought to defend "the sacred cause of state rights" against the heresy of nullification in 1833. Analytically, the dissertation strives to establish the core theoretical components of representative debates. It begins with the formulation of the first national Union under the Articles of Association (1774) and then moves to the constitutional compromise of 1787 and the debate over its meaning in the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions (1798). These chapters analyze the revolutionary political grammar of association and its importance to American constitutional deliberation. Subsequent chapters treat the issue of sovereignty through a study of the Olmsted Crisis in Philadelphia and the issue of concurrent state powers in New York by examining the Steamboat Cases. Then, the dissertation explains how Northern states' claim to interpret the Constitution for themselves was sorely discredited by the national attention given to Calhoun's radical theory of nullification in 1833. Finally, it examines the North's turn away from state rights and social contract theory and toward the organic nationalist theories of the Union espoused by Daniel Webster and Joseph Story.