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states' rights

In the Early Days of the Union

Immediately after the adoption of the Constitution, controversy arose as to how to interpret the enumerated powers granted the federal government. Alexander Hamilton and the Federalist party favored a broad interpretation, which meant a strong central government deriving its authority from implied as well as express powers contained in the Constitution. Thomas Jefferson and his followers, "strict constructionists," insisted that all powers not specifically granted the federal government be reserved to the states. The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, written by Jefferson and James Madison, represent the first formulation of the doctrine of states' rights. The second important manifestation of states' rights occurred in New England among the Federalists in opposition, curiously enough, to Jefferson. His party, while in power, brought about (1803) the Louisiana Purchase, passed the Embargo Act of 1807 and other nonintercourse measures, and later declared war against Great Britain. All of these actions met with resistance in New England, and the War of 1812 finally led to the calling of the Hartford Convention of 1814–15, in which New Englanders officially expressed their hostility to the federal government.

The fight over the constitutionality of the Bank of the United States made the central states—Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Ohio in particular—the next defenders of states' rights. The points at issue here were settled in McCulloch v. Maryland by decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, dominated by John Marshall, whose broad interpretation of the Constitution laid the foundations of strong central government. The doctrine was revived in the conflict between the federal government and Georgia as to which had jurisdiction over Native American tribes within Georgia's boundaries, and Georgia for a time defied the federal administration. Even more acute was the situation that developed in South Carolina in opposition to the tariff acts of 1828 and 1832, when, under the leadership of John C. Calhoun, South Carolina passed its ordinance of nullification. Calhoun's doctrine of absolute state sovereignty was the most extreme of states' rights theories.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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