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States Rights Vs Federal Rights Essay Definition


Lesson 6: “Analysis of Federalist Papers/Federalism vs. States’ Rights” (Grades 11-12)

Background: Due to the many problems that arose from attempting to govern effectively under the Articles of Confederation it became necessary for our Founders to start over and draft a new document that would centralize power in a federal government; however, opposition to such an idea was fierce from advocates of states’ rights.  In an attempt to win over voters in New York State throughout 1787 and 1788, John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison would publish what would become known as The Federalist Papers in several New York newspapers under the pen name “Publius.”  The papers became famous and remain so to this day as a means of gaining insight into the minds of the Framers as they made their case for federalism.

On the flip side, those opposed to federalism—not surprisingly called anti-federalists—felt that too much power had been taken out of the hands of the states and that they were headed down the path back to tyranny.  Those beliefs continued to grow throughout the waning years of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century, surfacing most obviously during Jackson’s presidency and again as a contributor to the Civil War.  During the Nullification Crisis of the 1830’s, John C. Calhoun took the lead in advocating for states’ rights and his views encapsulate the issues of that movement perfectly then and still today.

This lesson seeks to allow students the chance to analyze difficult primary source materials looking for insights into the authors’ views and opinions, as well as giving them a thorough working understanding of the many issues surrounding both federalism and anti-federalism.  They can also begin to draw conclusions about their own beliefs about the role of the federal government in the lives of citizens, as well as make connections to today’s political parties and their ideas on the subject.

Objective: Students will read and analyze various sources to be able to understand and speak knowledgably about the following:

  • The Federalist Papers
  • Federalism
  • States’ rights
  • James Madison
  • Nullification
  • John C. Calhoun
  • Republic/republicanism
  • Democracy



  • Part One: Distribute excerpts of Federal No. 10 the night before for homework with the following guiding questions to answer:
    • How does James Madison define a faction?
    • What remedy or remedies does he provide for the problems that arise from factions?
    • How does he define a republic?  What arguments does he make for a republic vs. a true democracy?
    • Overall, is Madison persuasive?  Why or why not?
  • Part Two: The next day in class, put your students into small groups of 3 or 4 and have them discuss their answers.  Were they convinced by Madison’s arguments, etc.?  Then have each group report back on one of the answers or share their overall sentiments.
  • Part Three: Have a class discussion around the issue of whether they see parallels in today’s political climate and Madison’s fears about factions.  Ask them to be as specific as possible and to explain/support their answer.  If you know it will be difficult for them to draw such parallels, provide them with additional materials to look through on things such as the Tea Party, etc. to help them.  Or you could show some news clips in class to them if that is possible.
  • Part Four: Have the students write a one-page reflection on what they read and discussed, being sure to not just regurgitate the information, but to think about how the issues discussed by Madison are still pertinent in today’s society, what that says about our system and if it works or not, and what it says about us as Americans.


  • Give relevant background on the Tariffs of 1828 and 1832, Andrew Jackson, and John C. Calhoun.
  • Distribute excerpts from Calhoun’s statement on nullification.
  • Come up with a definition of nullification as a class and explain why Calhoun is calling for such an act.  Why does he believe the tariffs are unconstitutional?  What do his feelings tell us about his views on the role of the federal government?
  • Distribute excerpts of comments by 2012 GOP presidential hopefuls and ask the students to determine if any of the current candidates for the Republican presidential nomination share similar states’ rights views as Calhoun.  What comments can the student point to to support their arguments?
  • Split students into two random groups and assign one group to defend federalism and the other to defend states’ rights.  They should be prepared to address the major question of: what is the proper size and role of government in citizens’ lives?  You could keep it open-ended and have them decide which points and arguments they want to make, or you could choose several issues—such as taxes, military/defense, social welfare—that they should be focusing on and they could assign themselves roles based on those.  It will depend on the age and ability of your students.  However you want to structure it, homework tonight for your students should be to prepare/research for the debate.


  • Class debate on federalism vs. states’ rights.  Although debates need to be structured, it is also important to allow for a certain amount of free discourse to flow, depending on age, sophistication, appropriateness, etc.  There should be opening and closing statements for each group, with others, perhaps in pairs, presenting arguments for specific issues regarding each group’s overall position, as well as time for questions and rebuttals.
  • As a wrap up, for homework, each student should write a reflection paper on the debate and answer the question regarding the appropriate size and role for government based on their own views, opinions, etc.  1-2 pages double-spaced should be sufficient, and students should obviously be allowed and encouraged to write in the first person and bring in their own experiences to support their arguments.

DCPS Social Studies Standards covered:

  • 8.3.4, 8.3.5, 8.3.6, 8.4.1, 8.4.3, 8.9.2, 8.10.5, 8.11.2, 8.11.3
  • 11.1.6, 11.1.7
  • 12.1.4, 12.1.5, 12.1.6, 12.2, 12.3, 12.5.1, 12.5.3, 12.8.5

US History Content Standards covered:

  • Era 3, Standard 3
Era 4, Standard 3
  • Era 5, Standard 1
  • Era 10, Standard 1

Virginia History and Social Studies Content Standards covered:

USI.1, USI.7, USI.8, USI.9, USII.1, CE.1, CE.2

Maryland State Social Studies Curriculum Standards covered:

  • Standard 1, Expectation 1, Topic A, Indicator 1, Objectives a-j
  • Standard 1, Expectation 1, Topic A, Indicator 2

The appeal to states' rights is of the most potent symbols of the American Civil War, but confusion abounds as to the historical and present meaning of this federalist principle. 

The concept of states' rights had been an old idea by 1860. The original thirteen colonies in America in the 1700s, separated from the mother country in Europe by a vast ocean, were use to making many of their own decisions and ignoring quite a few of the rules imposed on them from abroad. During the American Revolution, the founding fathers were forced to compromise with the states to ensure ratification of the Constitution and the establishment of a united country. In fact, the original Constitution banned slavery, but Virginia would not accept it; and Massachusetts would not ratify the document without a Bill of Rights.

The debate over which powers rightly belonged to the states and which to the Federal Government became heated again in the 1820s and 1830s fueled by the divisive issue of whether slavery would be allowed in the new territories forming as the nation expanded westward.

The Missouri Compromise in 1820 tried to solve the problem but succeeded only temporarily. (It established lands west of the Mississippi and below latitude 36º30' as slave and north of the line—except Missouri—as free.) Abolitionist groups sprang up in the North, making Southerners feel that their way of life was under attack. A violent slave revolt in 1831 in Virginia, Nat Turner’s Rebellion, forced the South to close ranks against criticism out of fear for their lives. They began to argue that slavery was not only necessary, but in fact, it was a positive good.

As the North and the South became more and more different, their goals and desires also separated. Arguments over national policy grew even fiercer. The North’s economic progress as the Southern economy began to stall fueled the fires of resentment. By the 1840s and 1850s, North and South had each evolved extreme positions that had as much to do with serving their own political interests as with the morality of slavery.

As long as there were an equal number of slave-holding states in the South as non-slave-holding states in the North, the two regions had even representation in the Senate and neither could dictate to the other. However, each new territory that applied for statehood threatened to upset this balance of power. Southerners consistently argued for states rights and a weak federal government but it was not until the 1850s that they raised the issue of secession. Southerners argued that, having ratified the Constitution and having agreed to join the new nation in the late 1780s, they retained the power to cancel the agreement and they threatened to do just that unless, as South Carolinian John C. Calhoun put it, the Senate passed a constitutional amendment to give back to the South “the power she possessed of protecting herself before the equilibrium of the two sections was destroyed.”

Controversial—but peaceful—attempts at a solution included legal compromises, arguments, and debates such as the Wilmot Proviso in 1846, Senator Lewis Cass’ idea of popular sovereignty in the late 1840s, the Compromise of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, and the Lincoln-Douglas Debates in 1858. However well-meaning, Southerners felt that the laws favored the Northern economy and were designed to slowly stifle the South out of existence. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was one of the only pieces of legislation clearly in favor of the South. It meant that Northerners in free states were obligated, regardless of their feelings towards slavery, to turn escaped slaves who had made it North back over to their Southern masters. Northerners strongly resented the law and it was one of the inspirations for the publishing of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852.

Non-violent attempts at resolution culminated in violence in 1859 when Northern abolitionist John Brown abandoned discussion and took direct action in a raid on the arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Though unsuccessful, the raid confirmed Southern fears of a Northern conspiracy to end slavery. When anti-slavery Republican Abraham Lincoln won the presidential election in 1860, Southerners were sure that the North meant to take away their right to govern themselves, abolish slavery, and destroy the Southern economy. Having exhausted their legal and political options, they felt that the only way to protect themselves from this Northern assault was to no longer be a part of the United States of America. Although the Southern states seceded separately, without intending to form a new nation, they soon banded together in a loose coalition. Northerners, however, led by Abraham Lincoln, viewed secession as an illegal act. The Confederate States of America was not a new country, they felt, but a group of treasonous rebels.

Learn More: Slavery in the United States

South Carolinians crowd into the streets of Charleston in 1860 to hear speeches promoting secession.