"The United States shall guarantee to every state in this Union a republican form of government."
—Constitution of the United States, Article IV
Until the triumph of the civil-rights movement at the end of the 1960's, probably the most disruptive and recurrent conflict in American politics came from the struggle between central authority in the federal government and local authority at the level of the states. Since the 1960's, the issue seems almost to have vanished, although states' rights are periodically trotted out by one side or another to score a debating point. While the defense of local community and authority has historically been associated with the political right, last year liberal columnist E.J. Dionne wrote a column challenging the Supreme Court's ruling that made George W. Bush president by arguing that the ruling violated states' rights.
It is not surprising, given the political football that the concept of states' rights has often been in our history, that few historians have seemed to take it very seriously —especially since the civil-rights movement, when its invocation by segregationists supposedly "discredited" the concept, hi the 1950's, journalist James J. Kilpatrick published an explicitly segregationist book, The Sovereign States, that remains one of the best defenses of...