As I finished my profile of 2008 presidential contender Ron Paul earlier today, I thought about how much things can change in 200 years. In the 1798 conflict over state's rights between President John Adams and his political rival Thomas Jefferson, there was no doubt that the state's rights position was the one most amenable to the spirit of the young American democracy. Adams had persuaded his allies in Congress to pass a piece of a legislation that would have imprisoned Jefferson's supporters for criticizing government officials, and Jefferson took him on by ghostwriting the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798. "The several States composing the United States of America are not," he wrote, "united on the principle of unlimited submission to their General Government." Jefferson won the presidency in 1800 and Adams' Federalist Party was consigned to the dusty tomb of history, never to win another national election.
But as time passed, state's rights began to take on a different meaning. The Founding Fathers, in their limited wisdom, had left a contradiction in their system of government. The Constitution that begins "We the people...," that states that the very function of government is to protect human rights, had also stated that more than half of the country had few, if any, rights. Women could not vote, and were by force of law essentially made into wards of their fathers and husbands. And, more specifically pertinent to this discussion, black Americans of either gender could be consigned with their children and grandchildren to a life of forced servitude. Soon the phrase "state's rights" began to refer, almost exclusively, to the right of states to force "we the people" into lives of slavery. The Tenth Amendment, which had been drafted to protect rights, provided cover for limited totalitarianism.
After the American Civil War, the Fourteenth Amendment redefined the concept of state's rights. States still had their zone of authority--but whenever human rights were trampled upon, they lost that authority. By protecting human rights at the federal level, the government placed an asterisk next to the Tenth Amendment. The precise meaning of that asterisk would define American domestic policy for a century.
In Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court finally explained what that asterisk really meant. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ended legal segregation in public accommodations, established further federal authority to protect human rights. Soon Southern segregationists, nostalgic for the old ways, repeated the familiar cry of "state's rights" in order to win elections. When then-governor Ronald Reagan repeated that cry while announcing his presidential candidacy at the 1980 Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi, there was little doubt that he was referring specifically to the old ways. That was what "state's rights" had come to mean, especially in Mississippi.
Then I read Ron Paul. Here is a candidate who believes that the government lacks the authority to regulate marriage, prosecute drug-related crimes, ban abortion, or collect an income tax--never mind the Civil Rights Act, though he opposes that, too. Turning to Article I Section 8 and Article III Section 3, he points out that the only crimes specifically defined as punishable by the federal government in the Constitution are treason, counterfeiting, and piracy. All other matters, from the drug trade to racketeering to tax evasion, are relegated to the states. What is remarkable about Ron Paul is that he takes the Tenth Amendment to its logical conclusion--and what he advocates is complete reform of the U.S. government.
For my part, I believe that we have learned too much over the past two hundred years to return to Jefferson's model of a confederation of independent states. I believe that the Supreme Court's interpretation of the Commerce Clause, while not consistent with the original intent of the framers, is certainly an accurate reading of the text--and one consistent, to quote Chief Justice Earl Warren, with our "evolving standards of decency." I know too much about my own home state of Mississippi to trust an unfettered Tenth Amendment system. We need legislation that deals with interstate crime, we need an FDA and Department of Education, and we need strong federal civil rights legislation. If that means Thomas Jefferson would be disappointed with me, so be it.
But there is still one Jeffersonian left in Congress, and his name is Ron Paul. However slim his chances of capturing the nomination, however impractical his ideas, his appeal to the Tenth Amendment is no thinly veiled reference to the days of segregation. He is serious about advocating Thomas Jefferson's approach in every area of government, and the consistency of his platform is both uncommon and refreshing.