Causes of the “Civil War”

In a PBS interview seven years ago historian and Harvard University president Drew Gilpin Faust identified slavery as the cause of the Civil War. “Historians are pretty united on the cause of the Civil War being slavery,” she said before adding, . . . “when the various states announced their plans for secession, they uniformly said that the main motivating factor was to defend slavery.”

But she commits three errors. First, the American Battlefield Trust suggests that only four of the “various” first seven seceding states issued formal statements citing slavery as a prime reason for leaving. Second, the four upper-South states of Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas only joined the Confederacy after President Lincoln called for 75,000 troops to coerce the seven Gulf states back into the Union. They did, however, double the Confederacy’s white population and her territory east of the Mississippi River. Third, and foremost, Faust falsely equates the reasons the Northern states chose to fight a war with the reasons Southern states seceded.

She fails to consider that Northerners could have let the cotton states leave in peace, thereby avoiding a Civil War altogether. The original seven-state Confederacy was so weak that many believed her component states might end up humbly asking to be readmitted to the Federal Union. According to historian David Potter: “No one was much impressed with the Gulf Coast Confederacy. No one was convinced that it would be economically or politically viable.”[1]

Moreover, many Northern leaders were prepared to “Let the erring sisters go in peace.” Among them was abolitionist Horace Greeley, then editor of The New York Tribune, which was America’s largest newspaper. Greeley wrote, “We have repeatedly said . . . that if the slave states choose to form an independent nation, they have the right to do so.” President James Buchanan added that many Republicans shared Greeley’s opinion when he wrote: “Leading Republicans everywhere scornfully exclaimed ‘Let them go;’ ‘We can do better without them;’ ‘Let the Union slide,’ and other language of the same import.” Ohio lawyer and future Republican President Rutherford Hayes was satisfied to let the free states remain alone as his January 4, 1861 diary entry reveals: “The [twenty] free states alone . . . will make a glorious nation . . . scarcely inferior in real power to the thirty-three states we had on the first of November.”[2] Similarly, President Lincoln’s future War Secretary, Edwin Stanton, said, “Oh, I would let the South go; they will be clamoring to get back in three years.”

Faust made a second error by ignoring the reasons that Northerners chose to fight, instead of concentrating only on the reasons the South seceded. She could have, for example, examined resolutions passed by at least six Northern state legislatures in response to the first wave of seceding states. All six suggested that they were prepared to fight a war in order to “preserve the Union.”[3]

The elephant in the Civil War history classroom

It is impossible to conclude that the resolutions of any of the six states even hint of a Northern holy war to free Southern slaves. Moreover, the vague abstractions for wanting to preserve the Union, such as the “freedom,” “prosperity,” and “happiness” presumably enabled by the Federal Union, suggest that they may be nothing more than obfuscations designed to camouflage the true goal of aborting the economic consequences of disunion. Even historian Gary Gallagher who accepts the platitudes at face value, concedes that the average Northerner was preoccupied “then, as now, [by] economic concerns.”[4] A truncated Union separated from its Southern states would likely face two significant economic problems.

First, it could not hope to maintain a favorable balance of payments. The South accounted for about 80% of America’s exports on the eve of the Civil War. Thus, without the South’s export economy, America would become a perpetual debtor nation forever at the mercy of its stronger trading partners that would deplete her gold supply in order to settle the persistent trade imbalances.

Second, since the Confederate constitution outlawed protective tariffs, her lower tariffs would confront the remaining states of the abridged Union with two consequences. First, since ninety percent of Federal taxes came from tariffs, the government’s revenue loss would be sizable. Articles imported into the Confederacy from Europe would divert tariff revenue from the North to the South. Second, and even more importantly, a low Confederate tariff would induce Southerners to buy manufactured goods from Europe as opposed to the Northern states where prices were inflated by protective tariffs.

In January 1861 The Philadelphia Press editorialized, “It is the enforcement of the revenue laws [tariffs], not the coercion of [South Carolina] that is the question of the hour. If those laws cannot be enforced, the Union is clearly gone.” In When in the Course of Human Events author Charles Adams reasons:

If trade were to shift to the Southern ports because of a free trade zone, or extremely low duties relative to the North, then [the] great cities [of the Northeast] would go into decline and suffer economic disaster. The image painted by these editorials [from newspapers of Northeastern cities] is one of massive unemployment, the closing of factories and businesses, followed by unrest, riots, and possibly revolution. The inland cities of the North would also go into decline, like Pittsburgh, where duty-free British steel and iron products would cripple the American steel industry.

Consider the iron-producing state of Pennsylvania, which was among the most vigorous advocates of protective tariffs. As the railroad industry boomed for decades after construction started on the transcontinental railroad during the Civil War, tariffs on imported steel rails sometimes approached 100%. Thus, while Pennsylvanians proclaimed that they did not want to interfere with the Southern slavery, they undeniably wanted generous tariff protection.[5]

The false equivalency between the reasons that the South seceded and the reasons that the North chose to fight a war rather than let the seven cotton states depart peaceably is the ignored elephant in the history classroom.

*       *       *

[1] David Potter, The Impeding Crisis (New York: Harper Colophon, 1976), 505
[2] Hayes miscounted. At the end of January 1861 there were only nineteen free states.
[3] New York, Maine, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Minnesota
[4] Gary Gallagher, The Union War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011), 42, 44
[5] Jack Beatty, Age of Betrayal (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2007), 67; Samuel Bostaph, Andrew Carnegie: An Economic Biography (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017), 137; Ludwell Johnson, Division and Reunion (New York: Wiley, 1978), 64

About Philip Leigh

Philip Leigh contributed twenty-four articles to The New York Times Disunion blog, which commemorated the Civil War Sesquicentennial. He is the author of Southern Reconstruction (2017), Lee’s Lost Dispatch and Other Civil War Controversies (2015), and Trading With the Enemy (2014). Phil has lectured a various Civil War forums, including the 23rd Annual Sarasota Conference of the Civil War Education Association and various Civil War Roundtables. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering from Florida Institute of Technology and an MBA from Northwestern University. More from Philip Leigh

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