In the years before the Civil War, the states’ rights doctrine was put forth by many Southerners in defense of the Southern states’ autonomy. They argued that the states should have more power than the federal government in many areas, particularly in the area of slavery.
The states’ rights doctrine argued that the Constitution gave states a great deal of sovereignty. It argued that the Constitution was a compact between sovereign states and that the states had the right to decide what the Constitution meant. This came to the fore for the first time in the Nullification Controversy of the 1820s. At that point, some Southern states argued that they had the right to nullify federal laws that they felt were unconstitutional. The issue of states’ rights later became something of a cover for advocating slavery. Many Southerners argued that the federal government should stay out of the issue of slavery because it was an issue that was best left to the states.
This sort of argument resurfaced about a century after the Civil War. Then, it was used by Southerners to argue in favor of segregation. It was used to claim that the federal government should not try to impose racial integration because the states had the right to enact whatever laws they wanted in this area.