The national mourning, outpouring of love, adulation and respect that was evident in the various programs and services honoring the passing of our fortieth President, Ronald Reagan, was appropriately concluded with a western-movie-like ride off into the sunset at his entombment.
Ronald Reagan was an enigma. He had broad personal appeal for the American people, but those who knew him best said that ultimately he was remote as a person. Publicly, he revealed comfort with himself, even as he concealed his truest self from the public. His affability and sense of humor often hid his cruel and insensitive politics and policies.
What was consistent–and even more fundamental–about the man was his political commitment to states’ rights, the belief that each and every state has a sovereign right to control its laws. States’ rights logically flowed into a related issue–radical individualism, with every private business having the right to welcome or exclude whomever it wished from its form of transportation, restaurant, hotel or motel.
In 1981 NBC’s David Brinkley followed Reagan for a single day just thirty days into his presidency. At a meeting of the nation’s governors Reagan made it clear that he believed in state sovereignty, and that during his Administration the states would not be subjected to mandates sent down from the federal government.
Ronald Reagan’s presidency is credited with giving conservatives their ideological line–fewer taxes, less government and a strong defense; and for transforming the Republican Party in the South. The centerpiece of this conservatism is its historic commitment to states’ rights. Reagan was merely its most recent popularizer.
States’ rights were first made famous by Thomas Jefferson–the Democratic Party’s ideological founder. South Carolina’s Democratic Senator John C. Calhoun intellectually refined it. Democrats Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy, and Gen. Robert E. Lee of the Northern Army of Virginia took it to its logical conclusion–seceding from the Union. This was followed by Democrat Strom Thurmond’s Dixiecrat campaign of 1948; Republican Barry Goldwater’s states’ rights campaign of 1964 (in which Reagan was intimately involved); Independent George Wallace’s presidential campaigns in the late 1960s and early ’70s; the Reagan years of the 1980s; the current Supreme Court, whose decisions have been consistently moving back toward states’ rights; and most recently the Bush campaign and Administration. So, whether Democratic, Republican or Independent politicians, or Supreme Court Justices, all are dominated by conservative states’ rights thinking.
Understanding states’ rights helps to explain why Reagan launched his 1980 presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi. He was invited to do so by then-US Representative (later Senator and majority leader) Trent Lott. In Philadelphia Reagan endorsed states’ rights and in turn was endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan, which was present on that occasion. In 1964 Philadelphia was the site where civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney were murdered in the name of states’ rights as they attempted to register blacks to vote in Mississippi. In 1980 Reagan was sending a states’ rights signal to all conservatives, South and North, that their states would be given freedom even if it was at the expense of justice.