01 February 2011

Tariffs & Slavery - Some Balance

As has been discussed here before, the simplistic and intellectually dishonest notion that the WBTS had a single cause (whether that cause be slavery, tariffs, or sectionalism), more often than not reveals one's agenda-driven view of this part of our history. Whether the single view theory comes from a self-righteous academic bent on demonizing the South, or from the descendant of a Confederate soldier attempting to justify the South's secession, single issue causation has become little more than a tug of war for modern political and ideological reasons. Attempting to have a discussion with someone from either view is usually fruitless as they really don't want to be confused by the facts. They have their version of the truth, thank you very much. 

With that in mind, I would recommend a piece written by Phil Magness who is a professor of political science at American University. The piece is titled, Did tariffs really cause the Civil War? The Morrill Act at 150

Here's Professor Magness's bottom line:

"A measured and factually grounded take of the tariff issue reveals its dramatic resurgence between 1858-61 as the national political climate collapsed and pre-war sectional divisions reached a fever pitch. The issue directly contributed to those divisions, particularly as it arrived in the Senate during the 'Secession Winter' to add its own havoc to a rapidly growing perfect storm. Though it is not a complete or full explanation of the Civil War itself, it should be viewed as an indicator of the war's complexity. Simplistic, single-issue explanations of large political and military upheavals seldom work under scrutiny, and the tariff is one such sign of how the economic dimensions of secession overlapped and intertwined with the Civil War's moral questions about slavery and political questions about sectionalism." (Emphasis mine.)

You can read the complete piece here.



Michael Bradley said...

I am not surprised that the 150th anniversary of the war finds many historians--academic and independente alike--taking a fresh look at the causes of the war.

The emphasis on a single cause is rather new, it dates from the end of the 1960's and has its roots in looking at our past through the then current lens of the Civil Rights Movement. Now that civil rights is no longer the "hot" topic of the day historians are doing what historians have always done, seeking another lens through which to view the past.

We have changed our interpretation of the causes of the WBTS many times before now and we will continue to do so.

One poll suggests that about 40+% of academic historians see multiple causes for the war, and that number seems to be increasing.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Hello Professor. Thanks for the insightful comment. What is rather amazing to me is the clich├ęd drumbeat phrase of "more recent" studies as if "more recent" is automatically indicative of "more accurate." Its both a ridiculous and rather self-absorbed premise to suggest modern scholarship is always superior to "older" scholarship. Its faddish and shallow.

Seeker said...

Well since Jefferson Davis himself said tariffs had nothing to do with secession, and he spoke at the time -- maybe tariffs had nothing to do with it.

Jefferson Davis, by the way, said what the "intolerable grievance" was. He said there was on "intolerable grievance" that made it impossible to remain in the union.

Not the tariff, he said.

The intolerable grievance was that some "people" in the North has dared to "speak disparingly" about the Dred Scott decision.

That's right -- someone up North (he meant Lincoln) had spoken out against the decision by the "august court" on Dred Scott.

Let's look at Dred Scott decision. That was the decision that said blacks were "so inferior" that "no reasonable man" could possibly assume blacks had any rights whatever.

Blacks were not even HUMAN in the eyes of the Dred Scott court.

We have taught our children that Dred Scott was about "citizenship" for slaves. Nonsense. Dred Scott specifically denied blacks were even HUMAN in eyes of the law.

They had no more rights, according to Dred Scott decision, than a pile of rubbish or a cow.

And while a pile of rubbish could be granted certain rights by congress or state legislatures -- black people could NOT be granted rights, whatsoever.

Black had "no rights which white men must accept" -- not even if the US Congress or a state tried to give them rights.

That was the Dred Scott decision.

Do you think Jefferson Davis FORGOT about the tariff when he wrote that?

So someone speaking about -- giving their personal opinion-- about a vile horrible corrupt decision, was "the intolerable grievance" according to Jefferson Davis.

Learn real history, learn what the South did and said at the time.

Everything else is nonsense.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Hello Seeker - thanks for the comment and for providing a prime example of the "single cause" fallacy. There's a bit more to examine than the Dred Scott decision and Jeff Davis's comments.

Best regards.

Mark Snell said...

The threat to the expansion of slavery posed by the incoming Lincoln administration was the cause of secession of the Cotton South. Everything else merely aggravated the situation. 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. Nontheless, a well-written, balanced essay on Magness's part.

Stephen Clay McGehee said...

I am confident that, at some point in the future, historians will look back on what is happening in the middle east today and be debating the exact same question.

Today, one side says that it is people seeking freedom from an oppressive government. The other side says that it is militant Islam raising its ugly head to expand its political power. There are likely other reasons that we are not hearing about. I suspect that the reason depends on which individual in the mob you are talking about.

The cause that historians will assign to the Egyptian riots will likely depend heavily on the outcome. If Egypt becomes another version of Iran, then they will say that the cause was militant Islam - just as slavery is claimed as the cause of the War for Southern Independence because slavery came to an end in the Southern states after the war. "Cause" and "Effect" are sometimes easy to confuse, and life is usually a whole lot more complicated than the "one primary cause" proponents will admit to.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Hello Mark. As you well know, this issue has been debated ad nauseum, so I don't want to get into that here (again), but I agree that Magness's essay brought some refreshing balance to the discussion.

How would you evaluate the fact that the CSA constitution (certainly a primary source) banned tariffs? Wouldn't that indicate a major source of contention, since the Confederate govt. specifically outlawed them? I've heard other historians use the mention of slavery in the CSA constitution as evidence that the war was over slavery, but they always seem to miss the tariff issue.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Stephen - good points. I've also read that the recent riots were sparked by food shortages. I made similar arguments about the war in Iraq. There was no single cause and there was no single cause to the WBTS.

Mark Snell said...


The CS constitution does not ban tariffs--only duties that would "protect of foster any branch of industry."

Banning tariffs (that protect industry) in its constitution does not, however, indicate that this issue was a "major" source of political contention, any more than banning the delegation of "the power to Congress to appropriate money for any internal improvement intended to facilitate commerce." Again, I ask any of your readers to show me (I went to school in Missouri) the words of Southern political leaders who specifically said that a protective tariff was one of the "major" issues that led to secession and war. As yet, I have not found those documents.

I'm assuming, when you were relic hunting recently, that the ground beneath the snow wasn't frozen. "Dedicated" is an understatement. Back in the valley of the three forks of the Wolf River in Tennessee, Alvin York would have called you "a bit tiched."

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Mark - I think that is a rather fine distinction. Merriam-Webster defines tariff as: "a schedule of *duties* imposed by a government on imported or in some countries exported goods"

Actually, parts of the ground were frozen. We were also digging in a stand of cedars where the snow was much more sparse. My wife and children would be in complete agreement with Sergeant York. ;o)

I had told my buddy I'd take my gear, but had no intention of digging in the snow. You see how that worked out.

Michael Bradley said...

I would like to know how the incoming Lincoln administration posed a threat to the expansion of slavery. The Supreme Court had ruled, in Dred Scott, that "neither the congress nor the president" could end slavery, such action could be taken only by a state. This meant all territories were open to slavery.

As to tariffs, read the Republican platform for 1860. It pledged support for protective tariffs.

Overturning Scott could have happened in two ways--appointing a new justice to the court and hoping for a case which could be decided in such a way as to overturn Scott or by passing a Constitutional amendment. Neither of these was at all likely to happen so long as the South remained in the Union.

By analogy, these are the only ways Row v.Wade can be overturned and you see how long that ruling has stood. Lincoln could no more prevent slavery in the territories than a contemporary president can end abortion.

What did worry the South was the specter of John Brown. When people spoke against Scott their opposition could be seen as encouraging actions such as his.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Thanks Michael - good points. I guess I am going to allow some debate on the issue after all. ;o)

Mark Snell said...

Mr. Bradley,

The operative word is "threat." You are no doubt familiar with the various state secession ordinances, wherin Lincoln and the Republicans were deemed a threat to certain domestic institutions. As far as protective tariffs, the Republicans merely continued the practice of the Whig party in pursuing the economic policies of a positive liberal state. I don't recall reading any secessionist rhetoric when William Henry Harrison was elected, or when other Whig candidates ran for president. I'm still waiting for evidence--by Southern political leaders, written during the secession crisis--that indicates that tariffs were a major cause of disunion.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Snell:

"I'm still waiting for evidence--by Southern political leaders, written during the secession crisis--that indicates that tariffs were a major cause of disunion."

You need only to look no further than the original article, as one such example is linked. Straight out of the "Address" that the South Carolina secession convention sent to the other states, inviting them to join the cause:

"And so with the Southern States, towards the Northern States, in the vital matter of taxation. They are in a minority in Congress. Their representation in Congress, is useless to protect them against unjust taxation; and they are taxed by the people of the North for their benefit, exactly as the people of Great Britain taxed our ancestors in the British parliament for their benefit. For the last forty years, the taxes laid by the Congress of the United States have been laid with a view of subserving the interests of the North. The people of the South have been taxed by duties on imports, not for revenue, but for an object inconsistent with revenue - to promote, by prohibitions, Northern interests in the productions of their mines and manufactures." - South Carolina Secession Convention, adopted December 25, 1860

Mark Snell said...

Dear Anon:

Thanks for proving my original point, that the tariff issue was an aggravation, not a major cause. Fully 3/5's of the document you cite focuses on the threat to slavery posed by Republicans and abolitionists as the reason for secession. And, it you go back and read the originial South Carolina Declaration of the Causes of Secession, tariffs are only briefly mentioned. The other states that drafted individual "declarations of causes" also focused on the threat to slavery by the incoming administration. As far as I can tell, only Georgia mentions the taxes/duties issue, while the rest of the document dwells on the threat to slavery. I suggest reading _Apostles of Disunion_ by Charles Dew, if you really want to see the "evidence" used by the various secession commissioners to convince slave-holding states of the Upper South to join the Confederacy. I'd like to continue this debate, but I have a pressing deadline for a book on a different "secession" topic: West Virginia's secession from Virginia--but that's a whole 'nother story.

Douglas Hill said...

Perhaps Mr. Calhoun summed it up best, during the Nullification Crisis a few decades earlier:

"The Union- next to our liberty, the most dear".

Anonymous said...

Actually, Mr. Snell, you are weaseling away from your original request.

You demanded in rather explicit terms a source from 1860-61 that identified tariffs as a major cause of contention, all the while implying that no such source exists. You didn't ask for an 1860-61 document that cited only tariffs, always tariffs, and nothing but tariffs. You asked for one that gave them major play as a cause among many. And that is exactly what you got.

Regardless of what else it also says and irrespective of what other secession documents are out there, be they in Charles Dew's silly little book proclaiming what was already well known and obvious to any honest historian or elsewhere, the South Carolina document I directed you to satisfies your original terms on at least three counts:

(1) It definitely came from the 1860-61 timeframe, not a later memoir (2) it was one of the major secessionist proclamations by the preeminent state in the secession movement, and (3) it directly names the tariff grievance and discussed it at length.

If you were being honest about this discussion you would concede that simple point, and would still be perfectly able to maintain the primacy of slavery without risking inconsistency. But I fear that an honest inquiry was never your purpose or intent, which also tends to indicate that, despite being cloaked in the form of an open question, your position has always been a fixed and preconceived one in your mind and is therefore impervious to any counter-evidence.

DavidS said...

The strength of Political Science is that the discipline concentrates on identifying contests over power and influence; analyzing how language, propaganda, and pressure are used to to influence public opinion; and how information is recorded as "history" to influence future public opinion. When this perspective is used on historical events such as the American Civil War, the result can be an insightful article such as you have linked here.

Since struggle for influence and consolidation of opinion are characteristics of any institution, not only governments, there is a generation of up-and-coming political scientists who are training their sights on modern universities in order to apply the above analyses to history departments, the literature they produce, and institutional rewards for rhetorically correct points of view.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Anon - strong.

David - "language, propaganda, and pressure are used to to influence public opinion"

I've discussed this same issue as it relates to the WBTS before. As w/any issue, politicians use rhetoric and language to cast as wide a net as possible. Multiple causes - "agitations" - actually serve those who want war very well due to the fact that what "agitates" one, may not agitate another. The more agitations you have, the more people you have coming to your support. It's really political science 101.

Mark Snell said...

Dear Anon,

"If you were being honest about this discussion you would concede that simple point, and would still be perfectly able to maintain the primacy of slavery without risking inconsistency. But I fear that an honest inquiry was never your purpose or intent . . . ."

I concede the simple point that you provided evidence in this proclamation. I stand by my assertion that the tariff issue was only an aggravation, and the evidence that I provided is overwhelming. Speaking of being honest, it's easy to hide behind an "anonymous" label. Even Charles Dew put his name on that "silly little book," a book that provides a wealth of evidence to prove his point.

Richard, even though I had said in a previous post that I was finished responding, I couldn't allow an anonymous blogger to question my honesty. Forgive me, but that deadline is not going away. Case closed on this end.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Mark: No need to apologize for deadlines - been there. As I originally pointed out, this issue has been debated ad nauseum with very few converts. I don't fault Anon for posting anonymously. That is allowed here and there are reasons folks prefer that. I don't think criticizing him for that gains you any points.

Michael Bradley said...

Indeed, Lincoln and the Republican Party were seen as a "threat" but that threat had nothing to do with expansion of slavery into the territories. The threat had to do with John Brown. One newspaper editorialized that Lincoln should be hanged because he did not take a firm stand against Brown during the 1860 presidential campaign. That paper was Lincoln's hometown paper in Springfield, Illinois.

As to the tariff, on March 1,1861, the first Confederate tariff went into effect. It continued the rates adopted by the U.S. in 1857. On April 1, 1861, the new Morrill Tariff was scheduled to go into effect in the Union states. The Confederate tariff was about half the Morrill rate. In March 1861 merchants in the northeast began to panic, arguing that the lower Confederate tariff would not only cause the Southern states to do their own importing but would begin to separate the midwestern states from the northeast since cheaper goods could be purchased via the Mississippi River from New Orleans. Some even felt that this economic tie would bring the midwest to join the Confederacy.

These fears are discussed in The New York Herald, The Post, and The Times for March 1861.

Lincoln responded by proposing that the Morrill Tariff be collected by naval vessels stationed off-shore of Confederate ports.

Obviously, the tariff was important to Northern public opinion and to the Lincoln administration.

BorderRuffian said...

Prof. Bradley:
"...In March 1861 merchants in the northeast began to panic..."

Gustavus Fox was selected by Lincoln to lead the expedition to Fort Sumter. Where did he get the financial support for his expedition?

New York merchants.

HungaryGator said...

I would argue that much like the colonists' complaints being directed against the king....even though they knew perfectly well that it was parliament which was enacting the acts they were opposed to, the causes listed by the states were a bill of particulars. Though they may have been more motivated by the economic issues, it was no breach of the constitution to lay a heavy tariff which would cripple their economies. In complaining of the failure to enforce Dred Scott and in the interference in domestic institutions (ie slavery) they were citing something they could claim was a real breach of the compact. Newsflash! Politicians engage in posturing sometimes.

The address of Robert Barnwell Rhett of South Carolina which was attached to the declaration of causes for that state has already been listed as has the rather lengthy section in Georgia's declaration of causes (Texas' declaration also referred to economic issues among other causes "They have impoverished the slave-holding States by unequal and partial legislation, thereby enriching themselves by draining our substance.").

I cite as further evidence the editorials of 2 of the South's most prominent newspapers:

"The real causes of dissatisfaction in the South with the North, are in the unjust taxation and expenditure of the taxes by the Government of the United States, and in the revolution the North has effected in this government from a confederated republic, to a national sectional despotism." Charleston Mercury 2 days before the November 1860 election

"They [the South] know that it is their import trade that draws from the people's pockets sixty or seventy millions of dollars per annum, in the shape of duties, to be expended mainly in the North, and in the protection and encouragement of Northern interests....These are the reasons why these people [the North] do not wish the South to secede from the Union." The New Orleans Daily Crescent 21 january 1861

furthermore, I cite the views expressed by some Northern papers:

"Slavery is not the cause of the rebellion ....Slavery is the pretext on which the leaders of the rebellion rely, 'to fire the Southern Heart' and through which the greatest degree of unanimity can be produced....Mr. Calhoun, after finding that the South could not be brought into sufficient unanimity by a clamor about the tariff, selected slavery as the better subject for agitation North American Review (Boston October 1862)

On 18 March 1861, the Boston Transcript noted that while the Southern states had claimed to secede over the slavery issue, now "the mask has been thrown off and it is apparent that the people of the principal seceding states are now for commercial independence. They dream that the centres of traffic can be changed from Northern to Southern ports....by a revenue system verging on free trade...."

I could cite a lot more both in the North as well as overseas stating that tariffs and economic issues were the real cause but I trust the point is made.

Another bit of evidence is the inaugural address of Jefferson Davis which doesn't even mention slavery but which does make the case for tariffs to be as low as possible. One has to remember the Southern states remembered full well how damaging a high tariff had been to their economies before. I find it impossible to believe that such pocketbook issues were not hugely important to them. What are most wars fought over? What do we argue about mostly in our politics today? Economics/Money! To claim that this was somehow not a major issue is a position I do not find credible.

If the issue really were slavery...why did the Corwin Amendment not entice the Southern states to return? Lincoln even endorsed it in his inaugural address and had publicly supported the Dred Scot decision. I could also cite the opinions expressed by Grant, Sherman and Lee that slavery was not what the war was about, but that would just be piling on at this point.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

HG - thanks for the comment and quotes. The slavery is THE cause argument fits very neatly into the modern morality play of the righteous North coming to free the oppressed. It is almost comical to watch "scholars" over-simplify such a complex issue when they constantly remind others of the complexity of Southern attitudes toward secession. Even the Virginia Historical Society has put forth the idealistic, romanticized notion that the war was only over slavery.

I'm currently reading Clash of Extremes - The Economic Origins of the Civil War by Professor Marc Egnal. He points out in his introduction the following:

"In sum, the current emphasis on slavery as the cause of the Civil War is fraught with problems. It does not clarify the sequence of events [a point I've made on this blog], the divisions within the sections, or the policies and actions of the Republican Party. It is these problems that a new interpretation must address."

Many academic institutions and historians have gone so far out on making slavery THE issue, that they've become a caricature and have sacrificed their credibility on the altar of political correctness and modern politics.