The Evolution of “States’ Rights” in 19th Century America

Throughout American history, there have been several political phenomena that have become defining characteristics of American politics, such as individualism and sectionalism. Phenomena like these have deep roots in America’s past, going back to the 18th and 19th centuries. In spite of this, however, these concepts are rarely invoked consciously. Conversely, the concept of “states’ rights” is not just a significant political concept in American history, it has been (and continues to be) invoked by politicians and private citizens alike.

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“States’ rights” can be traced as far back as the 1790s, when the Jeffersonian and Federalist factions sparred over what they deemed the correct course that the government should take, especially between the issue of a centralized or de-centralized government. That was not the only time when “states’ rights” was a central concept in American politics, and it would only become more relevant as the 19th century unfolded. In the present day, this concept has become increasingly invoked by, and affiliated with, American conservatives. But in the past, the issue was less partisan, and had different connotations from today.

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This being the case, I am interested in studying the evolution of “states’ rights” throughout the 19th century, and to utilize digital historical tools and methods to do so. One way that I will do this is by using Google Ngram to identify periods when the term was used more, and to draw correlations between it and other issues of the time. I will also utilize the Library of Congress’ database, so that I may find specific documents relevant to the issue of “states’ rights.” Finally, I will run certain texts and documents that I find on the LOC website through Voyant, so that I may draw further correlations between “states’ rights” and other issues that are paired with it, like tariffs, slavery, taxes, etc. Ultimately, I hope that this project will help me identify certain patterns between the invocation of “states’ rights,” and the occurrence of certain political crises that arose simultaneously with “states’ rights” usage. If this is accomplished, then hopefully it will demonstrate the fluidness by which the concept is invoked, and determine when, and how, it is invoked.

One Reply to “The Evolution of “States’ Rights” in 19th Century America”

  1. Raphael, I think this is a solid concept for a project. My sense is there are a range of points that will be interesting to do comparisons on in Google N-gram. Initially, I’m curious how trends for things like “state’s rights” compare to the differences between things like “the United States is” and “the united states are.” I think focusing on the language about rights and the states is going to be a really interesting thing to trace linguistically. Of all the Library of Congress resources to look into, I think https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/ is probably going to be the richest one to delve into as that gives you a chance to see usage of terms in different contexts in newspapers from around the country over the period. My sense is that there is a pretty rich historiographic literature on this area of work which is great too. If you do decide to run with this as a project, doing a survey of existing literature on the topic is likely to turn up a lot of other nuanced terms that you could look for through both the newspapers and google n-gram.

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