One of the modern threads you will find in United States history is the debate on the causes of the Civil War, which mainly hinges on two major points of contention: first that states had the right to secede from the union legally and second that the Civil War was fought over states rights. On the second point the counter-argument brought up is “indeed, the right to have slavery in a state” – which sparks another round of debate. Honestly though I personally find the argument about states rights as the key issue disingenuous as an argument when discussing the Civil War due to the reaction of many Southern radicals to the infamous 1857 Dred Scott Supreme Court decision. In that Supreme Court case an African-American sued for his freedom, claiming that because he had lived and worked in both a free-state and later free-territory, he and his family should be free individuals. (A gross simplification but it will do for now.)
The United States Supreme Court, under Justice Taney, found that Scott was not freed, they also found that the Supreme Court did not have jurisdiction to rule in the case technically and, as a “by the way”, Congress did not have the power to impose regulations in the territories regarding slavery. Justice Taney had hoped his ruling would result in an end to the debates about the position of slavery within the United States, instead it sparked a massive uproar in the North and the South.
In the North it was felt that now the Supreme Court was only one ruling away from stating that individual states no longer had the right to outlaw slavery within the United States, on some vague notion it was “protected” in the Constitution. In the South it was felt that Northern citizens should calm down and embrace the legal ruling of the Supreme Court on the matter. It was also commonly felt that this ruling would open up the western territories to expanded slave ownership and create a new boom for economic development in the region, many Southern slaveholders after the ruling were excited about the idea of gaining access to cheap, productive land that could be tilled by slave labor.
Now to my eye the cornerstone problem with arguing states rights as a Civil War major cause occurs in this period, with Southern Radicals and their writing, whose ideas were upheld by many moderate Southern thinkers, that Dred Scott was the ruling that would pave the way towards a United States that allowed slavery to exist in every state, even those that had voted against it. Some Southern Radicals called for the day that “slave auctions took place in Boston Commons” – ground zero for abolitionists.
To my eye, had the bulk of Southern opinion in response to those fears by the North been “What? No, you have a right to not have slaves, we have a right to have slaves, calm down, lets pass a cross-sectional law that says as such. We’ll hammer out the west out, the Supreme Court kind of pooped a biscuit here” – the Civil War would probably still have occurred but it might have been delayed or lessened in impact. Certainly it would have sparked less paranoia in the North than the actual Southern reaction which could be summarized as “Hell yes! Eat it North! It’s SLAVING TIME”
The United States Civil War was a complex war, with roots resting in sectionalism, power balances within the nation, and economic impacts of slavery, along with the more common issues of property, role of national government, and states rights. But as a common thread throughout all of that runs the solid line…of slavery.