Government & Politics

Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt signed 1990 letter about how ‘states rights’ led to Civil War

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri says he did not write — but did sign — a 1990 letter that discusses “states rights” as a cause of the Civil War, but makes no mention of slavery.
U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri says he did not write — but did sign — a 1990 letter that discusses “states rights” as a cause of the Civil War, but makes no mention of slavery.

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt says he did not write — but did sign — a 1990 letter that discusses “states’ rights” as a cause of the Civil War, but makes no mention of slavery.

Blunt worked as a high school history teacher, college history professor and university president in Missouri before winning a seat in Congress in 1996. In an interview with The Star earlier this month, the Missouri Republican stressed that it’s always been clear to him that slavery was the “original sin” of the Constitution.

The fact that slavery caused the Civil War is not clear to all Americans, however. Polls show that 40 percent still think the conflict was “about” states’ rights, though no historian of any professional standing has argued that for a long time, said Edward L. Ayers, Tucker-Boatwright Professor of the Humanities and president emeritus at University of Richmond. Ayers has written numerous books about the Civil War, including “What caused the Civil War?”

“The men who led secession certainly talked in terms of the rights of the states,” Ayers said, “but there was only one right they really cared about: the right to have slavery remain undisturbed by a growing Northern majority.”

In 1990, Blunt was serving as Missouri’s Secretary of State and preparing for what would be an unsuccessful gubernatorial run when a student sent him a handwritten letter asking for help with an independent study project: How states’ rights led to the American Civil War.

“Why did the States feel that their rights caused them to separate from the U.S.?” the student asked Blunt. “What does the Constitution say about states rights? How have states’ rights changed since the Civil War?”

The typewritten response was signed by Blunt and printed under Missouri Secretary of State letterhead. It says the debate over states rights was at the heart of the Civil War.

“States’ rights advocates argued that withdrawal from the United States was a right available to each state in the union,” reads the response, which is on file in the state archives collection for Blunt’s tenure as secretary of state. “Their position was that each state freely chose to enter the union and could therefore freely choose to leave it.”

His response to the student, which runs slightly over one page, single-spaced, does not mention slavery.

It suggests the student read the writings of former Vice President and U.S. Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, “one of the most articulate and ardent supporters of the states’ rights position” and suggests studying the lives of Edmund Ruffin and Jefferson Davis “on the states’ rights side” and Republican President Abraham Lincoln, his Democratic rival Stephen Douglas and Nathaniel Lyon, a Union general, on the “national rights side.”

Calhoun called slavery a positive good. Davis, also a defender of slavery, was the president of the Confederacy. Ruffin was a Virginia slaveholder who claimed credit for firing one of the first shots of the war. He ended up killing himself, wrapped in the Confederate flag.

The letter signed by Blunt concludes with the observation that the states’ rights debate “continues to be waged in our own lifetimes.” It cites, as an example, the “debate whether or not the federal government has the right to require the state of Missouri to pay the costs of racial desegregation in Kansas City and St. Louis schools.”

In the 19th century, supporters of the South used states rights as an excuse to defend slavery, said David S. Reynolds, distinguished professor of history and American literature at City University of New York’s Graduate Center. Reynolds is author of the book, “John Brown Abolitionist.”

“It was definitely a euphemism at that time, absolutely,” Reynolds said. “Each of the states that left the union published a document explaining why they were leaving the union and very rarely would they ever mention the word slavery in these documents. They would say something like ‘to protect our domestic institutions,’ that kind of thing.”

In Blunt’s response to the student, “he’s leaving out why ‘states rights’ was being invoked, which is misleading,” said Caroline Janney, professor of Civil War history at the University of Virginia.

Asked about why his response to the student’s letter did not mention slavery, Blunt pointed out that the name “Gary K” was scrawled at the top the student’s letter, and circled with an arrow pointing to the return address. He said this notation likely means that he forwarded the letter to Gary Kremer, who worked for Blunt as the state archivist at the time.

Kremer now is the executive director of The State Historical Society of Missouri.

Blunt told The Star he’s sure Kremer wrote the response to the student in 1990, not him.

“I signed it, and I probably read it, but I’m sure that Gary Kremer wrote it,” Blunt said.

But Blunt said the response did answer the specific questions posed by the student about states’ rights.

“You know, that’s what the student asked about, so probably, I guess you could have written a six-page letter and gone into all the causes of the Civil War,” he said.

“Clearly,” Blunt said, “slavery was the original sin in the Constitution.”

Kremer does not remember writing the letter, but he said it’s possible he did.

“As Missouri’s State Archivist from 1987-1991, I often responded to letters written to then-Secretary of State Roy Blunt,” Kremer said in an email. “It was common for me to draft a letter and then send it to him for his approval and signature. It was also common for me to have another staff member draft a letter for me to send to the Secretary.”

Kremer said the response signed by Blunt appears to be a straight-forward commentary on the issue of state’s rights and the role it played in the the Civil War.

“The student didn’t ask about the issue of slavery and the role it played in bringing on the war; the response didn’t raise the issue of slavery either,” Kremer said. “I think you are misrepresenting the focus of the letter. The student’s letter didn’t ask about the causes of the Civil War; it asked ‘Why did the states feel that their rights caused them to separate from the U.S.?’ That’s a different question.”

Kremer said he’s been a university history professor for nearly fifty years and has published a dozen or so books. His position has always been that slavery was the central cause of the Civil War, he said.

“Without slavery, there would have been no war,” Kremer said. “States invoked the issue of ‘state’s rights’ because they wanted the right to retain the system of slavery and all that it entailed.”

In his interview with The Star, Blunt noted he had just been talking to a group of school students in front of the U.S. Capitol about Lincoln’s second inaugural speech, which the senator often brings up when he’s visiting with school groups.

He said he considers the second inaugural the greatest inaugural speech in the history of the country, and maybe the greatest presidential speech ever.

“It’s frankly better than the Gettysburg Address, which is pretty good,” Blunt said. “Lincoln had all the frustration of why the war can’t end, and why, with all the misbalance between the North and South they still can’t get the war to end. And he says in his second inaugural, basically, maybe this war will not end until every drop of blood drawn by the lash – which is of course slavery – is paid for by drops of blood drawn by the sword.”

The Star’s Ed McKinley contributed to this report.

Lindsay Wise is an investigative reporter for McClatchy’s Washington Bureau. Previously, Lindsay worked for six years as the Washington correspondent for McClatchy’s Kansas City Star. Before joining McClatchy in 2012, she worked as a reporter at the Houston Chronicle, where she specialized in coverage of veterans and military issues as well as the city’s Arab and Muslim communities.


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