STATE RIGHTS, a term used generally in political science to denote those governmental rights which belong to the individual states of a federal union, there being a certain Sphere of authority in which these individual states may act without interference from the central government. Thus in the United States there were certain rights reserved to themselves by the states when forming the union under the constitution of 1787. These rights the central government is by fundamental law bound to respect, and they can be reduced only by amendment to the constitution. For a thousand years the various German states were so jealous of any curtailment of their individual rights as to prevent the formation of an efficient federal government; in Austria-Hungary the larger states still jealously guard their liberties. In federal unions, such as Mexico and Brazil where a central authority existed first and created the states, the belief in state rights is much weaker than it is in unions composed of originally independent states. The rights of a state are said to be delegated when, as in Mexico, Brazil and Colombia, the constitution is created by a central national authority which also makes the states; state rights are residuary when independent states unite to delegate by a constitution certain powers to a central government, as in the case of the German Empire, Austria-Hungary, the United States, Switzerland, and until 1905, Sweden-Norway. History shows that states forming, unions of the second class are certain in after time to deny or assert that the sovereignty of the state is one of the rights reserved, according as the state belongs to a stronger or weaker section or faction; state sovereignty being the defence of the weaker state or faction, and being denied by the stronger group of states which controls the government and which asserts that a new sovereign state was created by a union of the former independent ones. This dispute is usually ended by civil war and the destruction of state sovereignty. The evolution of state rights as shown in the history of the United States, is typical. Thirteen independent states formed a union in 1787 under a constitution reserving certain rights to the states. The Sphere of the state authority embraced most of the powers, of government, except, for instance, those relating to foreign affairs, army and navy, inter-state commerce, coinage and the tariff; the powers of the central government were specified in the fundamental law. Most of the states claimed at one time or another that sovereignty was one of the reserved rights of the states and on this theory the Southern states acted in the secession in 1861. The war that resulted destroyed all claims of state sovereignty. The other rights of the states consisted of those not delegated to the central government or forbidden to the states by the constitution. In case of doubt the presumption was in favour of the state. Since the beginning, however, the central government has gained strength at the expense of the states, seldom by direct usurpation (except during the Civil War and Reconstruction, 1861-76), but indirectly through use and custom, as the country and people developed and new conditions of government arose. The field of state rights had not increased, while centralization has slowly but surely taken place. This centralization is shown not only by the increased power and activity of the Federal government as compared with the state governments, but in the change in popular opinion indicated by the use of the terms National, Union, etc., where formerly Confederate, Federal, etc., were used, and in the use of singular verbs after the words Congress and the United States, where formerly they were followed by plural verbs.
The central authority in the United States, formerly almost unheard of by the average citizen, now touches him in many of the activities of life and sometimes intrudes even into the domain of local self-government. The history of the decay of state rights makes it seem doubtful if the federal form of government is a permanent one, or is only a transient form between independent state governments or loose confederacies and a centralized national government.
See J. W. Burgess, Political Science and Comparative Constitutional Law (New York, 1895); Woodrow Wilson, The State (new ed., New York, 1903) ; A. H. Stephens, Constitutional View of the War Between the States (Philadelphia, 1868-1870); and A. L. Lowell, Governments and Parties in Continental Europe (Boston, 1896).
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)