JBS CEO Art Thompson spoke at the recentNullify Now! event in Phoenix and brought up an interesting point about how vocabulary and the choice of words can be used to frame a point of view. He correctly pointed out that supporters and opponents alike generally use the term states’ rights as opposed to states’ sovereignty.
On the face it may not seem like much of a difference but when you look at the meaning of the two words, you see that there is actually a big difference in terms of interpretation.
At the time of the writing of the Constitution, rights were considered natural rights; something that we have and are inalienable. In other words, rights were not endowed by a law or government, rather they were self-evident. Today, on the other hand, what is looked upon as a right is something that is given to us through the government or by law. So, by today’s definition, states’ rights are derived from the federal government. This flies in the face of what the writers and ratifiers of the Constitution had in mind, otherwise, what is the point of the Tenth Amendment?
Now considering that the Constitution was a compact between the several states to create a federal government and that during the ratification process many states reserved the option to op-out if the federal government overstepped it’s bounds, this brings about two questions.
First, if the states were indeed sovereign prior to the Constitution; as stated in the Articles of Confederation; Article II. “Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every Power, Jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.” weren’t they not afterward?
Another, more simple, question would be where did the states give up their sovereignty especially since, as part of the ratification of the Constitution, they approved the powers of Congress in Article I Section 8 and Section 9, the President in Article II Section 2, the courts in Article III Section 2 and insisted on the inclusion of the Tenth Amendment? It just doesn’t make sense.
You may be asking yourself, why is this such a big deal; whether we call it states’ rights or states’ sovereignty, isn’t it all the same? Well no. To me, sovereignty is a much more powerful word that conveys a position of strength, while using the word rights implies asking for approval. Also, when discussing an issue such as nullification, we need to be able to show that the states are superior to the federal government and that the federal government derives it’s power from the states. Otherwise we just look like we are asking for the federal government’s permission.
Words have meaning and we need to be sure to use the correct ones if we want to get our point across. Our republic is far to important to lose over a matter of semantics.