04 February 2011

Economics & The Civil War

John H. Reagan

There has been some discussion here recently regarding whether or not economics played a large role in the secession of the Southern states. The discussion followed in the comments in reaction to a recent post about tariffs. One person responding to this post made the following comment: 

"I've never found even one primary source (something written at the time, not a memoir or a reminiscence) that ever stated that tariffs were a major source of contention."

So, as a follow up to that original post, I thought I'd post some additional commentary, speech excerpts, etc. to continue the discussion. Here's the first *excerpt and installment:

"You are not content with the vast millions of tribute [tariffs] we pay you annually under the operation of our revenue law, our navigation laws, your fishing bounties, and by making your people our manufacturers, our merchants, our shippers. You are not satisfied with the vast tribute we pay you to build up your great cities, your railroads, your canals. You are not satisfied with the millions of tribute we have been paying you on account of the balance of exchange which you hold against us. You are not satisfied that we of the South are almost reduced to the condition of overseers of northern capitalists. You are not satisfied with all this; but you must wage a relentless crusade against our rights and institutions . . . We do not intend that you shall reduce us to such a condition. But I can tell you what your folly and injustice will compel us to do. It will compel us to be free from your domination, and more self-reliant than we have been." ~ Texas Congressman John H. Reagan, 15 January 1861 in a speech resigning his seat to support secession. Reagan later became Confederate Postmaster General and served in Jefferson Davis's Cabinet.

This speech should be no revelation. It's cited in Kenneth Stampp's The Causes of the Civil War, but I thought it timely, given the direction of the comments in the previously mentioned post.

*This post was put up rather hastily and I did not have time to do a good search to see if the full text of Reagan's speech was available online. If anyone can find it, I'd appreciate a link.


Clint said...

Well said. Blessings.

Michael Bradley said...

For those who wish to investigate the matter here are some books:

Egnal, Marc. Clash of Extremes:The Economic Origins of the Civil War. New york: Hill & Wang, 2009.

McClintock, Russell. Lincoln & the Decision for War. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2008,

Proctor, Ben. Not Without Honor--The Life of John H. Reagan. Austin: U of Texas Press, 1973.

Reagan, John H. Memoirs. New York: AMS Press, 1973.(Reprint of 1906 edition)

Reagan makes it quite clear that it was John Brown plus the tariff that strongly affected his decision to support secession.

BorderRuffian said...

Here's another item-

"...Mr. Chairman, the honorable gentleman from Vermont, [Mr. Morrill,] and all who have thus spoken in favor of this bill, openly advocate protection for the sake of protection...I can only account for it from the fact, admitted by the honorable gentleman from Pennsylvania [Mr. Florence] the other day, that the tariff question was no longer a financial, but a sectional question. The gentleman well knows that while the chief burdens will fall on the South, his constituents will be benefitted by a high protective tariff...

...Go on, then, gentlemen; pass this odious protective tariff bill; legalize the robbery of the South. We are in a small minority here, and therefore powerless to protect our constituents. What they may do hereafter I know not...."

Speech of Rep. Sydenham Moore (Alabama), House of Representatives, April 30, 1860

entire speech here-

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Michael - Thanks for the references. As I've noted, I've not read the full text of Reagan's speech. However, this excerpt would certainly rebuff Mark Snell's suggestion that not "even one primary source . . . ever stated that tariffs were a major source of contention."

I believe the link provided by Professor Magness in the original post also quotes a primary source. Frankly, I believe Mark, whether consciously or not, exaggerated the lack of primary sources which bring up tariffs and other economic concerns as reasons which led to secession and war.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Thanks BR.

Vince said...

Hi Richard,

I've participated in similar discussions before and don't have much to add, but I did want to mention your post's opening sentence to promote more precise use of terms. I think everyone agrees economics were central to the conflict that produced the war; it's how much the tariff mattered to secessionists in 1860 that's up for debate.

To clarify, a (the?) primary difference between North and South was the way they organized their labor markets, to put it euphemistically. Slavery was first and foremost a system of production, and seceding to protect your system of production would be about as big of an economic reason for secession as any I can think of.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Vince - well, "if everyone agrees economics were central to the conflict that produced the war" it's not getting the attention it should, as Mark Snell's comment indicated.

"seceding to protect your system of production would be about as big of an economic reason for secession as any I can think of."

I agree, but as the whole point of these posts indicate, that was not the only reason for seceding.

Thanks for the comment.

David Rhoads said...

Seems to me from the excerpt you quote that, although Reagan clearly has a bone to pick about tariffs, he is saying that it's the questions surrounding slavery--i.e., "our rights and institutions"--that are the final straw justifying secession:

"You are not satisfied with all this; but you must wage a relentless crusade against our rights and institutions . . . We do not intend that you shall reduce us to such a condition."

So certainly tariffs were an issue, but they don't seem, even in this excerpt, to have been sufficient in and of themselves to have justified and/or caused secession and war.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

David - how you extract that interpretation out of this excerpt is beyond my ability to comprehend. The bulk of Reagan's comments *here refer to other things beyond slavery. The only reference, at least in this excerpt, to slavery is one word - "institutions." And from that, compared to the previous 4 sentences pointing out economics, you come to that conclusion? Sorry, but I don't follow.

But just to be clear, I have no way of knowing, and neither do you, that tariffs or other issues would "have been sufficient in and of themselves to have justified and/or caused secession and war."

The whole point of these posts is simply to point out there was more to the WBTS than slavery.

*I've not read the complete speech - only this excerpt.

David Rhoads said...


I arrive at that interpretation because Reagan's litany of complaints about the tariff, however keenly felt, is nevertheless a description of the status quo which the Southern states had been willing to accept up until Lincoln's election. It wasn't that status quo that prompted secession, but, as Reagan explicitly states, the "relentless crusade against our rights and institutions".

In your excerpt from Reagan's speech, you'll notice an ellipsis between "you must wage a relentless crusade against our rights and institutions" and "We do not intend that you shall reduce us to such a condition." It is helpful to supply that omitted text to get a better sense of Reagan's argument:

"...you must wage a relentless crusade against our rights and institutions. And now you tender us the inhuman alternative of unconditional submission to Republican rule on abolition principles, and ultimately to free negro equality and a Government of mongrels or a war of races on the one hand, or on the other secession and a bloody and desolation civil war, waged in an attempt by the Federal Government to reduce us to submission to these wrongs. It was the misfortune of Mexico and Central and South America, that they attempted to establish governments of mongrels, to enfranchse Indians and free negroes with all the rights of freemen, and invest them, so far as their numbers went, with the control of those governments. It was a failure there; it would be a failure here. It has given them an uniterrupted reign of revolution and anarchy there; it would do the same thing here. Our own Government succeeded because none but the white race, who are capable of self-government, were enfranchised with the rights of freemen. The irrepressible conflict propounded by aboltionism has produced now its legitimate fruits -- disunion. Free negro equality, which is its ultimate object, would make us re-enact the scenes of revolution and anarchy we have so long witnessed and deplored in the American Government to the south of us.

"We do not intend that you shall reduce us to such a condition...."

Reagan's speech as a whole, far from implicating tariffs, instead explicitly states that it is the fear of abolition being forced upon the slaveholding states in the wake of the election of a Republican president that prompts and justifies secession. Moreover, in the speech as a whole, the few sentences about tariffs are just a minor diversion from the primary and overwhelming focus on slavery and white supremacy, despite the implication by the excerpt as presented that the reverse is true.

[The complete text of Reagan's speech is available in Southern Pamphlets on Secession, November 1860-April 1861 edited by Jon L. Wakelyn, UNC Press, 1996. You can view much of it on Google books, although some pages are not displayed due to copyright restrictions.]

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

David - I appreciate the addition for what was originally excluded from the excerpt I posted. As I noted in the original post, I was unable to locate the complete text and did ask for help filling in the blanks. Of course this additional quote adds context. But it does not detract from my original point.

If you've followed this blog for any period of time, or read things I've written, you'd know I've never said nor believed that slavery was not central to the WBTS. My contention is, and continues to be, that all of these issues (slavery, economics/tariffs and cultural) worked in unison to bring the country to war.

Certainly, the tariff and other economic issues (apart from slavery) which had been building for decades were much more than a "minor diversion."

As historian Douglas Harper has noted:

"The American Civil War was 'about' slavery like the Boston Tea Party was 'about' tea. Slavery became the symbol and character of all sectional differences. It was the emotional gasoline on the sectional fires. Its moral and social implications colored every issue in terms of right and rights. William Seward, the Republican leader whose party made so much of this, recognized the fact: 'Every question, political, civil, or ecclesiastical, however foreign to the subject of slavery, brings up slavery as an incident, and the incident supplants the principal question.'"