This essay is published in honor of Abel P. Upshur’s birthday, June 17, 1790.
Today, States’ rights are remembered as a legalistic excuse for the preservation of slavery – a part of the past best forgotten. One historian scoffs at the notion of “loyalty to the South, Southern self-government, Southern culture, or states’ rights,” declaring that “slavery’s preservation was central both to Southern politics and to the South’s withdrawal from the federal Union.” According to this Seaborg-winning professor, taking seriously what Southerners said about States’ rights is nothing more than “sepia-tinged nostalgia for the Old South.” A Pulitzer-winning historian of what he calls “a failed rebellion to preserve slavery” claims that masking the cause of slavery with an “alternative explanation” of States’ rights or Southern culture was a “psychological necessity” for Southerners. Indeed, it is de rigueur among modern historians to discount whatever Southerners said about politics, economics, or culture as a false front for the ulterior motive of slavery.
This essay series aims to right the wrongs which the commissars of acceptable opinion in academia and the media have inflicted upon the role of States’ rights in Southern history. Indeed, an honest study of the great political treatises of the Old South proves that the political philosophy of States’ rights was never a mere pretense for slavery, but reflected a deep passion for self-government rooted in Southern culture, as well as an earnest understanding of the Constitution rooted in Southern history – what the distinguished M.E. Bradford describes as a “patrimony,” “birthright,” and “heritage,” stretching from Magna Carta in 1215, through the Glorious Revolution and American Revolution in 1688 and 1776, and to the Constitution in 1787. Abel Upshur’s A Brief Enquiry into the Nature and Character of the Federal Government, published in 1840, is the subject of this essay.
Abel P. Upshur was born in 1790 on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, a small strip of land between the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. Upshur, son of a prominent family in this isolated corner of the country, attended Yale College and Princeton University, but was expelled from the latter after leading a student rebellion which threatened to shut down the school. At Upshur’s hearing, Princeton officials compared the school administration to civil government, arguing that both were owed absolute obedience. Upshur disputed this comparison, retorting that if the people were “dissatisfied with the government” then they “have a right to resist or even to overthrow it.” Upshur studied the law privately and was admitted to the bar in 1810. He opened his own law firm in Baltimore, but returned to Virginia after his father’s death, where he briefly volunteered in the War of 1812. Back home, his new law practice flourished and he became active in Virginia politics, serving as a legislator, attorney, and judge.
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