Interposition is a vital element of the theory of states’ rights constitutionalism, which can be broadly defined as a doctrine seeking to protect the rights and powers of the states in relation to those of the federal government. The proponents of the theory assert that the U.S. Constitution is a compact among the states and that each state can block (“interpose”) or overrule (“nullify”) actions of the union adversely affecting its interests and general well-being.
The states’ rights theory was first set forth in the late eighteenth century by Thomas Jefferson, then vice president of the United States, and James Madison, then a representative from Virginia. Denouncing the newly enacted 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts, Jefferson and Madison introduced resolutions respectively in the Kentucky and Virginia state legislatures, both of which insisted on a more strict constitutional interpretation of the delegated powers of the federal government. In so doing, both Jefferson and Madison asserted that a state could interpose its authority between the federal government and its citizenry, thereby forcing a constitutional test of the federal laws and actions in question. Jefferson further advanced the doctrine of interposition and contended that a state could even nullify a federal law, which the state deemed to be unconstitutional and was unwilling to recognize.
During the War of 1812, the demands for states’ rights and autonomy appeared in the New England states as well in the form of the Hartford Convention of 1814. But as the implacable estrangement between the North and the South over slavery and the nature of American federalism progressed, the slogan of “states’ rights” gradually became tantamount to “regional rights” in the South.
Linking a series of federal tariff policies (and particularly its Tariff of Abominations of 1828) to his region’s economic decline, John C. Calhoun, a South Carolinian and vice president of the United States, elaborated the theory set forth by Jefferson and Madison. In writing the South Carolina Exposition and Protest, Calhoun not only argued that the states had the right of interposition, but also explained a method by which they could nullify a federal law or action. Three decades later, the eventual secession of the eleven southern states from the Union and the subsequent outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 manifested the most extreme form of states’ rights ideology as well as the most acute constitutional crisis in the nation’s history.
After the Civil War, any extreme assertion of states’ rights theory virtually ceased for almost ninety years until the mid-twentieth century. However, when the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed legally imposed racial segregation in public schools in its 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, white Southerners revived and reintroduced the states’ rights idea of interposition. With an aura of respectability and sophistication emanating from their use of states’ rights constitutionalism, southern segregationists formed and carried out the region’s massive resistance to defy the Supreme Court’s desegregation decree and to resist the intensifying Civil Rights movement in the South. Beginning with Virginia, eight southern state legislatures had adopted their interposition resolutions by the end of 1956 to decry the Court’s encroachment on the rights reserved to their states and pledged themselves to use all lawful means to bring about a reversal of Brown.
The mid-twentieth-century southern segregationist use of states’ rights contentions in resisting federally initiated racial desegregation ultimately rendered the doctrine of interposition morally unsavory. But as long as the institution of American federalism is perpetuated, the debate over the rights of states in the federal arrangement and the vitality of states’ rights contentions—a time-honored conviction that those who are closest to a particular problem best know what ought to be done—will never desist.
Frederick D. Drake, and Lynn R. Nelson, eds., States’ Rights and American Federalism: A Documentary History (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1999); Forrest McDonald, States’ Rights and the Union: Imperium in Imperio, 1776–1876 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2000); Melvin I. Urofsky, ed., Documents of American Constitutional and Legal History, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989); and Garry Wills, A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999).