The most famous political defenders of slavery and states' rights during the pre-Civil War period--namely Calhoun, John C. Breckinridge, Jefferson Davis, and Alexander Hamilton Stephens--were not Jeffersonians. Thomas Jefferson's principled support for states' rights and real (if personally inconsistent) opposition to slavery have been maligned by a largely imagined link to later southern leaders. These men were far more committed to political aristocracy, extensive landholding, and human bondage than was Jefferson.
In these men, the ideas undergirding the Revolution of 1800--things like democracy, individualism, human freedom, near-pacifism, liberty of conscience, and republican simplicity--were either absent or transformed into means for a far different end (preservation of a plantation-dominated society built on slave labor). All kinds of justifications or rationalizations were brought forth to defend the southern status quo, from passages in the Bible to criticism of "wage slavery" in the North, but these had little to do with Jefferson.
Following Calhoun, Davis "rejected the individualistic heritage of Jefferson and Jackson for an ideal of an organic slaveholding community" (Wallace Hettle, The Peculiar Democracy). This ideal included disparagement of majoritarianism (democracy) and the southern yeomanry (small farmers). In contrast to Jefferson's hostility toward incipient capitalism and its industrial trappings, Davis and Breckinridge were boosters of the early railroad business and its dependence upon government largesse. Federal support for internal improvements was an important component of Hamiltonian ideology. It violated Jeffersonian support for laissez-faire economics and frugal government. Today it would be considered a form of corporate welfare--something beloved by chamber of commerce types who object to high government spending and taxing except when it benefits themselves. It is also telling that while Jefferson attempted to promote the "Quaker system" of peace, Calhoun, Davis, and Breckinridge each served as Secretary of War (USA, USA, and CSA, respectively).
Less known than Calhoun but more representative of the Jeffersonian tradition was use of nullification by the abolitionist movement. The Fugitive Slave Act was a controversial part of another legislative balancing act partially crafted by Clay: the Compromise of 1850. It required the return of escaped slaves, even when caught in non-slave states. This sparked outrage among anti-slavery advocates in free states, including many Conscience Whigs and Free Soil Democrats. The law triggered defiance of the federal government and its pro-slavery policies.
Within the abolitionist movement, William Lloyd Garrison, Lysander Spooner, and other nonviolent anarchists were leaders in opposing the act. Garrison led a meeting in 1851 that exclaimed, "We execrate it, we spit upon it, we trample it under our feet." Spooner, an ardent Jeffersonian, wrote pamphlets encouraging jury nullification--verdicts of "Not guilty" because the law itself was unjust--for those brought to trial for assisting runaway slaves. Carl Schurz, future Union general, U.S. senator, and Interior secretary, was an early leader of the just-formed Republican Party in Wisconsin. He was an advocate for states' rights and an opponent of slavery in the late 1850s.
A handbill circulated in Milwaukee called for the creation of a league to defend their "State Sovereignty," "State Courts," and "State and National Constitutions, against the flagrant usurpations of U.S. Judges, Commissioners, and Marshals, and their Attorneys." Four years after passage, the Wisconsin supreme court declared the fugitive law unconstitutional. Judge Smith used the compact theory of the Constitution to nullify the law within the state, refusing to accept the notion that "an officer of the United States, armed with process to arrest a fugitive from service, is clothed with entire immunity from state authority, to commit whatever crime or outrage against the laws of the state." In 1859, the Wisconsin legislature endorsed the compact theory and quoted from the Kentucky Resolution of 1798 in its proclamation condemning the "Bloodhound Law."
Massachusetts also embraced nullification, making it illegal for a state official to enforce the fugitive law. Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maine, Michigan, and Kansas joined in enacting personal liberty laws that prevented federal officials from using local jails and hindered enforcement in other ways. The Underground Railroad itself was a large-scale example of civil disobedience of the federal government, a type of "personal nullification" of federal laws based on fidelity to constitutional or moral principles. If more American states had officially nullified and more American citizens had personally nullified the Fugitive Slave Act, fewer escaped slaves would have had to go all the way to Canada to find safety and freedom. The infamous Dred Scott v. Sandford decision handed down by the Supreme Court in 1857 was condemned as unconstitutional by Frederick Douglas, who termed it "an open, glaring, and scandalous issue of lies."
During the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, liberals in the Democratic Party retained their traditional belief in states' rights, arguing that the economic and political abuses of the monopolistic robber barons could be mostly curbed at the state and local level, and by conscientious application of federal anti-trust laws. This was also the view of insurgent Republicans like Robert La Follette. According to historian Gabriel Kolko, La Follette "spoke for the small businessman and for true, unfettered competition," whereas the Morgans and Rockefellers desired self-serving industrial order via the U.S. government.
The alternative approach, which ultimately triumphed, was the establishment Republican view, later adopted by Woodrow Wilson: using the power of big government to offset the power of big business. We know how this story turns out. Federal regulation has often served to undercut more honest and progressive state attempts. More often than not, regulators work for private interests rather than the public interest as they are co-opted by the very companies and banks they are supposedly policing. In 1908, George W. Perkins, a J.P. Morgan & Co. partner who was close to TR, told an audience at Columbia University that "managers of the giant corporations would welcome supervision by the federal government" (in the words of the newspaper wire story). The Washington bureaucracy is more of a lapdog than a watchdog, which is precisely what Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt had in mind. It's all in Kolko's classic book The Triumph of Conservatism.
William Jennings Bryan, the Great Commoner, did not support bureaucratic government. For example, in 1906, he criticized the "socialistic" civil service system for being out-of-touch with average citizens. Under the leadership of Bryan and other progressives, the 1896 Democratic platform proclaimed, "During all these years the Democratic Party has resisted the tendency of selfish interests to the centralization of governmental power. . . . Under its guidance and teachings the great principle of local self-government has found its best expression in the maintenance of the rights of the States and in its assertion of the necessity of confining the general government to the exercise of the powers granted by the Constitution of the United States." Similar endorsements of states' rights were written into the 1908 and 1912 platforms.
Many Bryan Democrats lived in the South and were segregationists, but it would be a mistake to view their support for states' rights as mere cover for institutionalized racism. While this may have sometimes been the case, decentralization pre-dated the Missouri Compromise, Civil War, and Jim Crow. It was in the DNA of the Democratic Party, from the Anti-Federalists to Jefferson to Jackson.
In 1894, Governor John Peter Altgeld (D-IL) objected to President Cleveland's decision to send in federal troops to break up the Pullman strike, protesting that it was an insult to the people of Illinois and a "violation of a basic principle of our institutions." Four other governors subsequently informed Cleveland, "You are notified that you may not feel called upon by the plea of any alarmist to use United States troops here unless requested by State authority." In this instance, Cleveland was using federal troops to violate states' rights and the positive state to defend corporate power. With his Jefferson-Jackson roots, former Senator Lyman Trumbull (R-IL) was appalled by Cleveland's use of court injunctions and federal troops. Trumbull and Altgeld were enemies of injustice and allies of Bryan. Trumbull, author of the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, and the Civil Rights Act of 1866, was a personal mentor of Bryan and supported the Populist Party late in his life. Altgeld, a friend of labor and law partner of Clarence Darrow, backed Bryan in the 1896 and 1900 elections.
The victory of the corporate state, in the guise of "progress," was not the only defeat for liberal values during the Progressive Era. Using the commerce clause loophole of the Constitution, a federal police force was established in 1908 under Theodore Roosevelt that would later be renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation. It was a significant intrusion by Washington into a traditional area of state and local responsibility: criminal law enforcement. The FBI began taking modern shape during the Red Scare of the late 1910s and longtime director J. Edgar Hoover began his career as an assistant to repressive Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer during the Wilson years. Socialists, anarchists, pacifists, progressives, populists, and average Americans who questioned the nobility of the imperial European bloodletting were targeted by the Sedition Act and the Espionage Act.
It was the heirs of Bryan and La Follette--liberals who had a traditional respect for the Constitution and individual rights--who were lonely voices in the 1940s. They raised objections to federal agencies that could be used as tools of oppression: the FBI and the CIA. As a committee chairman, Senator Burton Wheeler (D-MT) twice killed attempts to legalize government wire-tapping. In 1940, Wheeler publicly criticized Hoover and the FBI for violating civil liberties while conducting investigations.
Senator Edwin Johnson (D-CO) was one of only two senators to raise concerns about the Central Intelligence Act of 1949. He called it "very radical legislation," warning that the CIA "might send its men inside the United States." Citing Senator George Norris (R-NE) on the FBI nine years earlier, Johnson cautioned against creating a Gestapo and worried about the Pentagon's power. Senator William Langer (R-ND) also used the Gestapo analogy for the newly-created CIA.
A full three years before Joseph McCarthy's speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, the Truman administration launched what has been called "the most extensive drive against civil liberties since the enactment of the Alien and Sedition Laws at the close of the eighteenth century." Under Truman's leadership, big government liberals unveiled the attorney general's list of subversive organizations, created the federal employee loyalty program, and prosecuted "seditious" individuals under the Alien Registration Act. Truman's foreign policy fearmongering played a role in fanning domestic fears of Communists. As a Hubert Humphrey biographer puts it, "The anti-Communism crusade abroad inevitably led to McCarthyism at home."
Traditional liberals and small government conservatives who opposed or questioned what they viewed as the militaristic and imperialistic nature of the Cold War were denounced as either full-fledged Communists or unwitting dispensers of Soviet propaganda. Senator Robert Taft (R-OH), an advocate of limited, constitutional government, and a man with impeccable all-American credentials, was called "the Kremlin's candidate" for president in 1952 by international banker-turned-leading "liberal" W. Averell Harriman.
What if the Tenth Amendment and other constitutional constraints had been honored and the federal government had not created first a national police force and then an international secret police force? We might have been spared the creation of a sprawling, expensive, and invasive national security apparatus. Tools of repression and subversion would not have been available to target civil rights, peace, and anti-establishment activists (e.g., FBI vs. MLK, COINTELPRO of the FBI, Family Jewels of the CIA). Big government is not always the champion of the "little guy" or the liberator of the oppressed. More often than not, overweening public power is an oppressor . . . working hand-in-hand with well-heeled private power. The New Left understood this. Do we?
Unfortunately, mid-twentieth-century examples of states' rights tended to center around the sectional and racial politics associated with Calhoun, not with the freedom and equality causes of Jefferson, the abolitionists, the populists, and the civil libertarians. Nullification resolutions were adopted by Virginia and Florida in the 1950s after the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in the public schools through Brown v. Board of Education. The Force Bill of 1833 was used by President Eisenhower to enforce the integration of Little Rock, Arkansas, public schools in 1957. Eisenhower cited the Fourteenth Amendment with its equal protection of the laws; Governor Orval Faubus cited the Tenth Amendment with its powers reserved to the states.