The Corner

Re: More Brainy Goodness

In my first pass, there is much good in Bill Voegeli’s piece on conservatism and civil rights. But I should also note that one of Bill Buckley’s primary concerns — the effects on federalism of federal civil-rights legislation — was a legitimate one. Federalism properly understood is not simply about “states’ rights,” but a system of divided governmental authority intended to stand against absolute tyranny. No doubt Mr. Buckley and others were concerned, in part, about containing the federal power unleashed against state-sponsored racism (and in this context, I actually mean states and not government generally), including judicial usurpation of federal and state representative bodies. Mr. Buckley was also a student of history and understood that the abolitionist movement of the prior century was born mostly from churches and certain northern states, not from Congress — which, after all, had passed fugitive slave laws essentially upholding slavery in the south. The federal government had a mixed record prior to the election of Abraham Lincoln, including the Supreme Court itself in the Dred Scott case. I can’t speak for Mr. Buckley and others who were not motivated by racism but principle, but (admittedly in hindsight) it is clear at least to me that the civil-rights legislation was appropriate and justifiable under the 14th Amendment. That is, the Civil War decided the matter and the Constitution was changed to underscore the equal status of black Americans. But in addition to imprudent and racist arguments, there were principled concerns raised against the civil rights legislation at the time — which most of us reject today.


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