George and Ann RichardsCivil War Era Center

Colored Conventions
December 2019 JCWE Editor’s Note by Rachel Shelden, Richards Center Director

December 2019 JCWE Editor’s Note by Rachel Shelden, Richards Center Director

Federalism in the Civil War Era

This special issue focuses on the role of federalism in the Civil War era, primarily in the years before the war. Federalism—or the distribution of power among different governing bodies—defined how most nineteenth-century Americans understood their relationship to the government, both in theory and in practice.[1] These men and women did not simply interact with the government and the law; rather, they were forced to navigate the complex relationships and overlapping authorities among the various governing bodies and regulations that made up the federal system.

Until recently, Civil War–era political and legal historians primarily viewed federalism as a binary—as the relationship between the federal government and the states. There is good reason for this: the two most pressing elements of the study of federalism in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have been the meaning of “states’ rights” in the conflict between northern and southern states and the role of the Civil War in producing the modern nation-state. This first emphasis comes from a desire to slay continuing Lost Cause dragons. Since the late years of the Civil War, Confederates and their defenders attempted to shift the meaning of the war from a conflict over slavery to one over the equality and sovereignty of the states. States’ rights, they argued, motivated white southerners to leave the union and caused the Confederacy’s downfall. No one captured this idea more distinctly than Confederate president Jefferson Davis, who later claimed he had told a colleague in 1864, “If the Confederacy falls, there should be written on its tombstone, ‘Died of a Theory.’”[2]

Historians have thoroughly dismantled the idea that Confederates fought primarily for a constitutional theory of states’ rights. Some have argued that white southerners only used states’ rights rhetorically, when it suited their political purposes. These historians often point to the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act—the single biggest expansion of federal power in the prewar period—and white southerners’ efforts to enact a federal slave code as evidence of states’ rights hypocrisy.[3] More recently, scholars have emphasized the power of white southerners within the federal government and, conversely, how white northerners relied on their own states’ rights arguments in fighting against slavery.[4] While legal and constitutional historians remain interested in how conflicts between state and federal power manifested in the prewar period, all agree that any states’ rights arguments that Confederates made were grounded in concerns about the peculiar institution.[5]

Historians who have studied Confederate governance have also shown just how problematic Davis’s quip remains. These scholars emphasize how quickly the Confederacy centralized in the Civil War years.[6] Their work has contributed to a second emphasis of scholarship on American federalism: the creation of the modern nation state. Works concerned with the growing power of Congress and executive bureaucracy in the Civil War and postwar years abound.[7] Since the 1990s, scholars influenced by political science have pushed back on the idea that the Civil War revolutionized the role of the federal government, emphasizing the expansive nature of the State—both at the federal and state level—in the antebellum period.[8]

In recent years, new directions in the study of federalism have begun to take shape. A group of legal scholars has shifted the word’s meaning beyond the federal-state binary to highlight the interactions among local, state, and federal powers and the prevalence of intersecting legal authorities. This new definition has allowed for key insights into the ways Americans understood and engaged with the federal system, particularly in the Revolutionary era and the twentieth century.[9] Yet this new work also presents an opportunity for Civil War–era historians to reinvestigate how governance operated during our period. Thus, the articles in this issue examine federalism from multiple angles and investigate how the structures of the federal system had significant consequences for how Americans engaged with the most pressing problems of the period.

The importance of understanding the role of local governance in American federalism is critical to Laura Edwards’s essay on how women participated in the public order in the period before the Civil War. As Edwards shows, assuming federalism consists only of the binary relationship between states and the federal government has clouded our ability to see the myriad ways that women navigated and engaged with the “overlapping jurisdictions” of law from the Revolution to the Civil War. This broad understanding of federalism allows Edwards to reevaluate a generation of historiographical conclusions about women’s marginalization from the law—including her own previous scholarship.

Politicians interested in harnessing the power of their voters for partisan or ideological purposes also had to think about the intricacies of the federal system from bottom to top and vice versa. Both Matthew Karp and Jack Furniss show how the antebellum Republican Party was remarkably attuned to the complexities of federalism. Like Edwards, Karp extends the importance of federalism beyond the states to consider the relationship between local and federal issues. As he explains, local vigilance committees—“extralegal” local entities that were key to the workings of antebellum federalism—helped shape Republicans’ antislavery commitment on the national level. Furniss highlights the flexibility of party officials in answering state concerns as a natural element of partisan politicking. With no standardized election cycle or polling spaces for the various local, state, and federal offices, partisans worked overtime to adapt party ideologies to each electoral contest in order to appeal to potential swing voters. The party system, Furniss shows us, mirrored the federal system of governance. Together, Karp and Furniss reveal how the feedback loops of the federal system required partisans to pay attention to how local, state, and federal concerns interacted, both in traditional and nontraditional government spaces.

The entire editor’s note can be viewed on the Journal of the Civil War Era Muster blog.

Rachel A. Shelden