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December 14, 2002

Good question: Virginia Postrel asks, about Trent Lott:
If he was so all-fired concerned about states’ rights and the decentralist ideas behind them, why did young Lott fight to keep northeastern chapters of his fraternity from voluntarily admitting black members? Answer: Jim Crow was never about voluntary actions; it was about preventing voluntary integration.
But claiming to be coerced while actually practicing coercion is a dark art that Southern racists have refined on for over 150 years. The Confederacy’s central claim was that the North was attempting to force change on them—but the central fact of American politics from the Mexican War to 1861 was the remorseless struggle of slaveowners to force Americans outside the South to enforce their “rights.” Whether Americans in Minnesota and Michigan and Maine wanted to or not.

As James M. McPherson put it in his Pulitzer-winning history Battle Cry of Freedom:

On all issues but one, antebellum southerners stood for states’ rights and a weak federal government. The exception was the fugitive slave law of 1850, which gave the national government more power than any other law yet passed by Congress.
Up to and including the power to send Federal soldiers into Northern cities to kidnap free Americans because a Southerner claimed to “own” them.
Yankee senators had tried in vain to attach amendments to the bill guaranteeing alleged fugitives the rights to testify, to habeus corpus, and to a jury trial. Southerners indignantly rejected the idea that these American birthrights applied to slaves. The fugitive slave law of 1850 put the burden of proof on captured blacks but gave them no legal power to prove their freedom. Instead, a claimant could bring an alleged fugitive before a federal commissioner (a new office created by the law) to prove ownership by an affadavit from a slave-state court or by the testimony of white witnesses. If the commissioner decided against the claimant he would receive a fee of five dollars; if in favor, ten dollars. This provision, supposedly justified by the paperwork needed to remand a fugitive to the South, became notorious among abolitionists as a bribe to commissioners. The 1850 law also required U.S. marshals and deputies to help slaveowners capture their property and fined them $1000 if they refused. It empowered marshals to deputize citizens on the spot to aid in seizing a fugitive, and imposed stiff criminal penalties on anyone who harbored a fugitive or obstructed his capture. The expenses of capturing and returning a slave were to be borne by the federal treasury. [emphasis mine]
There’s your “states’ rights” for you. Keep that in mind the next time you hear this vile platitude. It is the voice of the murderer who blames his victim, of the tormenter who claims he was forced. It is the great American lie, reborn in every generation. We may look like we’re taking baseball bats to everything decent, but we’re really the victims, ever think of that, huh? It is the voice of evil, caught in the act of becoming fully itself. [05:13 PM]
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