When we think about states’ rights, our minds often go straight to the Civil War. Few of us recognize that the debate is actually still quite alive. Events like those in Charlottesville draw our minds back to unresolved animosity of the War Between the States, but we should be using these events to help us understand who we are as a people and how we can work together to create a stronger nation.

The theory of states’ rights has been constantly, and often hotly, debated. Alexander Hamilton and James Madison were embroiled in differing views of the role of the federal government, with Hamilton advocating for centralized power and Madison arguing for a much looser union of states. This argument began within the very first term of George Washington, and has never subsided.

We must understand that states’ rights is a point of contention that existed long before the Civil War and continues strongly to this day. California, for instance, is trying to divorce itself from Trump-era policies this year, even hiring former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to assist in the legal battle. When Washington is blue, red states cry for sovereignty; when Washington is red, blue states do the same.

Since America’s first days, there has been a tension between the federal and state governments. Each state is an imperium in imperio, or roughly translated, a state within a state. Many countries have regions or departments, each of which may send delegates or representatives to the federal government, but oftentimes their job will be simply to disseminate and enforce federal policy.

The roles of American states, however, are not clearly defined. Even the Founders fought over what role the federal government would have in a state. According to the historian Forrest McDonald, this ambiguity began to cause serious issues when Hamilton began to talk of a plan to pay back war debts on a federal level, including those debts incurred by the states (McDonald 2000, 28-30).

The problem here was that some states (Virginia chief among them) had already paid back much of their debt. Hamilton’s plan would involve taxing the states to create a pool of money which would go toward paying back both federal and state debts. Virginia felt that they would be getting cheated in this deal, as it would mean that they would be paying taxes to subsidize other states’ debts.

Perhaps the largest reason that Hamilton’s plan began to send people to different ends of the state-federal divide is that this federal plan to pay back war debts would create codependency. This would be the first step in creating more than a legal tie between the states; it would bind them together financially, and many recognized that the strength of these fiscal bonds would be greater than those of the Constitution. McDonald echoes Hamilton in calling the Constitution “mere parchment” which carried less weight in the early American psyche (or the current American psyche) than did financial relationships (McDonald, 28).

There are two different main views of states’ rights, and they depend upon what we think ties Americans together. One camp would have sided with Madison or Jefferson. They viewed the people as belonging to and serving a certain state. In this scenario, the state would decide how they would act toward the federal government and would largely act as an independent region.

The other group would find a champion in Hamilton or, later, Lincoln. These would see the federal government as forming a bond between individual Americans, regardless of their homestate.

This tension can be framed around the phrase imperium in imperio, or a sovereignty within a sovereignty. How does one American relate to another? As individual citizens of America who are simply living in different states, or as citizens of individual states which agree to work together on a federal level? 

In the modern day, the prevailing view is certainly that of Hamilton, where American individuals are bound to each other via a centralized government; the American identity trumps the Pennsylvanian identity, for example. But until the end of the Civil War, that matter was up for debate. President Eisenhower, in speaking of Robert E. Lee, sheds light on how difficult it was for America to initially arrive at a consensus on this matter: “He believed unswervingly in the Constitutional validity of his cause which until 1865 was still an arguable question in America.”

And this really brings us to the modern day application. Until 1865, this was a matter of debate. In the modern day, the clearly dominant view is that of Hamilton, Lincoln, and others, which claim that America is fundamentally a collection of individuals, not a collection of states. This emphasizes the federal government and minimizes the states’ leadership. Everyone knows the president’s name, but even in my homestate of Idaho, I’ve met many people who cannot name our governor.

There are many problems with the way our government is centralized. It often works ineffectively, causes undue bureaucracy, and every four to eight years places tens—if not hundreds—of millions under a federal administration that they do not respect or want.

We should voice the issues the come from an overly powerful central government; there are many to expose. Still we must remember that states’ rights is not an easy issue to understand. Do we value national unity or local sovereignty more? Is it impossible to have both? We need to approach states’ rights with the caution it deserves, and in doing so remember that stirring up strife between brothers is not a virtue in and of itself (Proverbs 16:28). At its base, this is not a matter of whether we want to be united as a nation, but how. Do we want to be bound together solely by the Constitution, or by a system of shared finances? Do we want to be Americans first and citizens of our states second, or vice versa? Our country still hasn’t come to a consensus.


McDonald, Forrest. 2000. States’ Rights and the Union: Imperium in Imperio, 1776-1876. American Political Thought. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.