Texas v. White, 1869

The Civil War and Reconstruction marked a virtual revolution in the federal system. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments for the first time empowered the federal government to protect the rights of the people of the United States. But while the Civil War had discredited the old state-sovereignty theory of the Constitution, it did not kill the commitment to state rights. Now that constitutional nationalism was ascendant, people worried that taken to its logical consequences, it might destroy the contours of the federal system. During Reconstruction, therefore, Northerners only reluctantly concluded that the national government had to take on the responsibility for protecting rights, and they tried to preserve the basic structure of federalism. Reconstruction legislation was designed to encourage the states to fulfill their obligation to afford equal protection of fundamental rights.

The Supreme Court reflected the general desire to preserve federalism in Texas v. White. In this case the defendants challenged the right of Texas to bring a suit against them in federal court, arguing that its unreconstructed government did not represent a state in the Union. Chief Justice Chase's majority opinion echoed Lincoln's nationalistic argument that the Union was an organic development predating the Constitution. But Chase followed this panegyric to the Union with a paean to the place of the states within it, reconciling Lincoln's nationalistic rhetoric with a concern for state rights.

THE CHIEF JUSTICE delivered the opinion of the Court....

The Union of the States never was a purely artificial and arbitrary relation. it began among the Colonies, and grew out of common origin, mutual sympathies, kindred principles, similar interests, and geographical relations. It was confirmed and strengthened by the necessities of war, and received definite form, and character, and sanction from the Articles of Confederation. By these the Union was solemnly declared to "be perpetual." And when these Articles were found to be inadequate to the exigencies of the country, the Constitution was ordained "to form a more perfect Union." It is difficult to convey the idea of indissoluble unity more clearly than by these words. What can be indissoluble if a perpetual Union, made more perfect, is not?

But the perpetuity and indissolubility of the Union, by no means implies the loss of distinct and individual existence, or of the right of self-government by the States. Under the Articles of Confederation each State retained its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right not expressly delegated to the United States. Under the Constitution, though the powers of the States were much restricted, still, all powers not delegated to the United States, nor prohibited to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people. And we have already had occasion to remark at this term, that "the people of each State compose a State, having its own government, and endowed with all the functions essential to separate and independent existence," and that "without the States in union, there could be no such political body as the United States." Not only, therefore, can there be no loss of separate and independent autonomy to the States, through their union under the Constitution, but it may be not unreasonably said that the preservation of the States, and the maintenance of their governments, are as much within the design and care of the Constitution as the preservation of the Union and the maintenance of the National government. The Constitution, in all its provisions, looks to an indestructible Union, composed of indestructible States....

Considered therefore as transactions under the Constitution, the ordinance of secession, adopted by the convention and ratified by a majority of the citizens of Texas, and all the acts of her legislature intended to give effect to that ordinance, were absolutely null. They were utterly without operation in law. The obligations of the State, as a member of the Union, and of every citizen of the State, as a citizen of the United States, remained perfect and unimpaired. It certainly follows that the State did not cease to be a State, nor her citizens to be citizens of the Union.

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