I consider myself a scholar of nineteenth century U.S. history and spend most of my reading time on books and articles covering this period, but I always make sure to spend time reading about other time periods, countries, and forms of scholarly thought (philosophy, sociology, anthropology, etc.). Lately I’ve been reading more twentieth century history from authors like Tony Judt, Rebecca Skloot, and Ira Katznelson. I recently finished Katznelson’s Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time, which is probably the best book on the New Deal that I’ve ever read. Fear Itself reminds us of the importance of revisionism to historical inquiry. A popular narrative of the era promoted by past historians like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., argues that President Franklin Roosevelt built a diverse political coalition–black and white, rich and poor, North and South–to advocate for pragmatic economic legislation to combat the Great Depression amid a history of lassiez-faire principles in governmental economic and social policy. Katznelson uses Fear Itself to question this narrative and explore the boundaries and shortcomings of the New Deal. Despite the well-intentioned goals of New Deal agencies like the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, and the National Labor Relations Board, Katznelson concludes that the logic “states’ rights” and white supremacy ultimately limited the reach of the New Deal’s social and economic benefits to whites only.
One case in point lies in the effort to establish a federal anti-lynching law in 1935. To wit:
The [anti-lynching] bill went nowhere, despite the continued resurgence of lynching and the particularly ghastly October 1934 murder of Claude Neal, who had been accused of rape and murder. With a crowd of some four thousand, including many children, bearing witness, Neal was stabbed, burned, and castrated. He was forced to eat his own genitals before being dragged by an automobile to his death; then his body, mutilated and nude, was suspended from a tree in the courthouse square of Marianna, Florida. Photographs were sold for fifty cents. Neal’s toes and fingers were put on display.
With the Justice Department refusing to intervene during the next half year, despite the fact that Neal had been seized from a jail in Alabama and thus had been transported across state lines, [Senators] Wagner and Costigan moved to have the Senate take up the bill in April 1935. The president remained silent. In March, Eleanor Roosevelt explained to Walter White, “The President feels that lynching is a question of education in the states, rallying good citizens, and creating public opinion so that the localities themselves will wipe it out. However, if it were done by a Northerner, it will have an antagonistic effect.” Southern senators successfully killed the proposed law by preventing the legislation from coming to a vote. They did not, in the main, defend vigilante justice. Rather, they argued that Congress lacked authority to pass such a law; in assaulting states’ rights, it violated the Constitution. They also again claimed that their region could control lynching on its own, citing efforts where governors had intervened to stop such violence, and insisted that southern race relations, marked by bonds of affection, were superior to those of the North .
No federal anti-lynching legislation was ever passed during the 1930s or 1940s.
I grew up in a community friendly to the concept of states’ rights and was taught that state sovereignty was the best path towards upholding liberal democracy, political equality, and economic freedom. But this horrifying story exposes some of the shortcomings in states’ rights theory.
For one, “states’ rights” is not an end in itself; it is merely a means towards a larger political end-goal. Whenever someone invokes a states’ rights argument, we must always ask “to what end”? In the case of Claude Neal and thousands of blacks like him who were lynched during the height of racist thought in political and social practice during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the logic of states’ rights acted as an means towards the larger end-goal of maintaining white supremacy in the United States.
That said, I’ve come to believe that states’ rights is neither inherently good nor inherently evil precisely because the concept is a means for justifying so many different political positions, some of which might promote good policy and some of which could be hurtful to many people. The meaning of states’ rights changes with the context, and any political platform that aims to place the concept in black and white terms is bound to find intellectual loopholes throughout. And it’s unwise to assume that local power is inherently more fair and just than a federal power simply because of proximity or relationships with local residents. People oftentimes do bad things to others without regard for personal connections. More than 75% of all child abductions are carried out by perpetrators who are relatives or acquaintances with their victims. The so-called “black on black crime” phenomenon is not a racial issue so much as its an issue of violent neighborhoods. As Jamelle Bouie argues, “People don’t go across town to steal or kill—they commit crime against their neighbors. And in the United States, where most lives are still segregated by race, that means blacks victimize blacks, whites victimize whites, and so on.” And of course there is plenty of corruption on the state level and lower.
Governmental tyranny occurs at all levels of power, whether it be a neighborhood association, a city, county, or state government, or the federal government in Washington, D.C. Providing fair standards and procedures for holding political leaders accountable at all levels of government is absolutely necessary for a healthy democracy, and any resort to “states’ rights” must always require a further exploration into what, exactly, a person means by this term.