In the first week of 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions targeted legalized marijuana throughout the nation. As a politician known for his hatred of the drug, this came as no surprise. However, as a former senator from the South known for trumpeting the sovereignty of state power over federal overreach, his defense of vigorous national control, in this case to overturn practices that had been initiated by state ballots, seems contradictory, even hypocritical.
But the history of federalism has been filled with such contradictions that reveal how parochial interests frequently trump national ones in U.S. politics. Appeals to state sovereignty stem from a fear that the federal government does not properly understand or respect regional interests and from a desire to protect those interests. However, the appeal to state sovereignty is often rooted in more shortsighted mind-sets that generate distrust and division rather than a coherent, consistent political philosophy of “states’ rights.”
Understanding this tumultuous history of federalism offers an acute example of how we define the nation — which, in turn, reveals how we define what it means to be American.
The states’ rights doctrine — or the belief that the federal government should not infringe upon state interests — became ideologically attached to the U.S. South after the Civil War. Southerners tried to mask the centrality of slavery and white supremacy to the Confederate cause, inventing the myth that the war was about federal power. Segregationists built on this idea, opposing federal attempts to end segregation and racial discrimination over the next century.
But in the first few decades of the country’s existence, the most strenuous calls for state supremacy actually came from the region now synonymous with the support of federal power: New England.