Throughout American history, the issue of states' rights has been a predominant theme. An associated idea is nullification, which is the theory that any state can choose not to obey a federal law if it believes it unconstitutional. Though the Constitution did not grant the states this right, many states would attempt to nullify laws with which they disagreed, invoking the idea of states' rights.

Ratifying the Constitution

The first debate over states' rights occurred in 1788, when each state had to ratify the new Constitution that would replace the Articles of Confederation. This new Constitution put more power in the hands of the central government at the expense of state governments, and many states were wary of ratification. Ultimately, the states agreed to ratify it in exchange for a guaranteed Bill of Rights. The most important of these from the perspective of state's rights advocates was the 10th Amendment, which stipulated that all powers not explicitly given to the federal government would be reserved for the states.

The Kentucky and Virginia Resolves

In 1798, the issue cropped up again when, during John Adams's administration, Congress passed the unpopular Alien and Sedition Acts, which restricted speech critical of the federal government. In response to this law, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison wrote the Kentucky and Virginia Resolves, political statements that declared the states had the right to nullify, or declare unconstitutional, any laws that went against the Constitution. In this case, the two declared that the Alien and Sedition Acts went contrary to the First Amendment, which guaranteed freedom of speech.

John C. Calhoun

In 1832, John C. Calhoun, Vice President to Andrew Jackson, once again brought up the issue of nullification in response to the Tariff of 1828. This tariff had severely impacted farmers, especially in Calhoun's home state of South Carolina, and in response Calhoun and the South Carolina legislature sought to nullify the tariff, declaring it a principle of states' rights. President Jackson, though he opposed the tariff as well, publicly challenged South Carolina's right to nullify federal law. Ultimately the issue was resolved through a compromise that led to a new, lower Tariff in 1833.

The South

The issue of states' rights in South Carolina, however, was not over, and in 1860, the issue came up once more, this time with devastating consequences. Since the writing of the Constitution, the Southern states and Northern states had disagreed over the issue of slavery. When Abraham Lincoln, a Republican who sought to abolish slavery, was elected President in 1860, the Southern states, seeking to maintain their right to own slaves, seceded from the Union. This secession, led by South Carolina, was, in effect, an attempt to reject the election, which had brought Lincoln to power, and assert their rights as states to elect their own leaders. This secession led to the Civil War, which would last four years and claim 600,000 lives.