The Tariff and Other Tales from Alabama

Alabama Flag 2

My friends, there is one issue before you, and to all sensible men but one issue, and but two sides to that issue. The slavery question is but one of the symbols of that issue; the commercial question is but one of the symbols of that issue; the Union question is but one of those symbols; the only issue before this country in the canvass is the integrity and safety of the Constitution […] The South has aggressed upon no section. She asks no section to yield anything that is for her safety or for her protection. All that the South has ever asked of the Government is to keep its hands off us and let the Constitution work its own way. The South has been aggressed upon; the South has been trenched upon; four-fifths of her territory, in which she has equal rights, has been torn from her; and by the acts of Government she has been excluded from it. Revenues have been raised at the rate of two or three dollars in the South to one from any other section for the support of this great Government, but the South makes no complaint of mere dollars and cents. Touch not the honor of my section of the country, and she will not complain of almost anything else you may do; but touch her honor and equality and she will stand up in their defence, if necessary in arms.’

– Alabama Fire-Eater William L. Yancey, ‘Equal Rights in a Common Government’

When it comes to the War of Southern Independence, it is forbidden to say anything about tariffs.

In January 2004, North and South magazine published a debate between the libertarian scholar Thomas DiLorenzo (most famous for his anti-Lincoln revisionism) and a Lincolnite carpetbagging in a Southern university. DiLorenzo has argued (as did many Northerners and Southerners back then) that Lincoln started the so-called ‘Civil War’ to preserve the system of tariffs by which got the North rich and the South got ripped off, so North and South invited the best-selling and Pulitzer-winning James M. McPherson to provide ‘the truth about tariffs.’ McPherson made what he called a ‘fair guess’ that it was the North which actually paid the bulk of tariffs, not the South.

Yet in his own Battle Cry of Freedom, McPherson showed that tariffs were important to the North and the South for the exact opposite reason:

The tariff issue provides an illustration of how political fallout from the depression exacerbated sectional tensions. In each of the three congressional sessions between the Panic [of 1857] and the election of 1860, a coalition of Republicans and protectionist Democrats tried to adjust the 1857 duties slightly upward. Every time an almost solid South combined with half or more of the northern Democrats to defeat them. With an economy based on the export of raw materials and the import of manufactured goods, Southerners had little interest in raising the prices of what they bought in order to subsidize profits and wages in the North.

In January 2011, the Civil War Trust, a battlefield-preservation organisation, published an article by the historian Gordon Rhea. Although Rhea is best-known for his series on the Wilderness Campaign, his article took up the topics of slavery, tariffs, and secession. ‘Tariffs appear nowhere in these sermons and speeches,’ Rhea argued of the secessionists, ‘and “states’ rights” are mentioned only in the context of the rights of states to decide whether some of their inhabitants can own other humans.’ For good measure, Rhea pointed to the ‘Cornerstone Speech’ by Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens.

In March 2014, The Daily Show held a debate dubbed ‘The Weakest Lincoln’ between the libertarian commentator Judge Andrew Napolitano and three Lincolnites (one of whom, Eric Foner, is actually a Communist infamous for calling on Mikhail Gorbachev to preserve the Soviet Union at all costs by crushing the seceding Baltic States). When Napolitano claimed that Lincoln ‘wanted to preserve the Union, because he needed the tariffs from the Southern States, and because he resented the challenge to his authority,’ one of the Lincolnites responded, ‘No one was thinking about the tariff at the time. Let’s just say this. They failed to mention it when they seceded from the Union.’

Yet the Communist Howard Zinn, at one time another guest on The Daily Show  and no Lincolnite, provided some much-needed historical context in his popular A People’s History of the United States:

Behind the secession of the South from the Union, after Lincoln was elected President in the fall of 1860 as a candidate of the new Republican Party, was a long series of policy clashes between South and North. The clash was not over slavery as a moral institution – most Northerners did not care enough about slavery to make sacrifices for it, certainly not the sacrifice of war. It was not a clash of peoples (most Northern whites were not economically favored, not politically powerful; most Southern whites were poor farmers, not decision-makers) but of elites. The Northern elite wanted economic expansion – free land, free labor, a free market, a high protective tariff for manufacturers, a bank of the United States. The slave interests opposed all that; they saw Lincoln and the Republicans as making continuation of their pleasant and prosperous way of life impossible in the future.

The official insistence that tariffs did not enrich the North at the expense of the South and that tariffs were irrelevant to why the South seceded and the North invaded is just factually untrue. Whether the experts are frauds or fools – and at least in McPherson’s case, both are impossible – the fact is that in the Congress, the newspapers, the party platforms, the secession conventions, and the Confederate Constitution, the issue of tariffs remained divisive. In short, plenty of ‘someones’ were thinking about tariffs at the time.

Two of such ‘someones’ were Sydenham Moore and George S. Houston, two Representatives for the State of Alabama. Moore began his career with a law practice in Greensboro and eventually served as a judge for his local county and federal circuit as well as a captain in the Mexican War. Houston was a longtime Jacksonian (he had served in the Congress off and on since 1831) with a law practice and plantation in Athens.

On 30 April 1860, Moore spoke against the Republican Party’s Morrill Tariff, a record-breaking tax increase which protected key industries in swing States from foreign competition – ‘scarcely less oppressive than did the memorable tariff act of 1828, known throughout the South as the bill of abominations.’ Moore admitted that the ongoing crisis of slavery – a ‘question of far more perilous import’ – was more absorbing at the moment, but held that so long as ‘selfishness or avarice finds a lodgment in the human breast,’ the issue of the tariff was ‘never to be at rest.’

‘Who introduces it here now, as it seems to me, so unnecessarily and so unseasonably?’ Moore asked of the Morrill Tariff. ‘Not those upon whom the taxes are most heavily imposed by the tariff laws, and who might be expected to be weary of bearing, like Issachar, their endless burden, but the manufacturers themselves, for whose support and profits nearly every individual and industrial interest in the country is not compelled to contribute,’ he answered, adding that these moneyed interests had long-lobbied for such privileges. Moore rejected the Republicans’ profession that they wished to raise taxes in order to pay down the national debt, pointing out that pushing taxes too high actually lowered revenue and that they were resistant to cutting spending on anything. ‘From the manner in which the Republicans usually vote on all questions involving the appropriation of money,’ observed Moore, ‘it really seems as if they designed to swell the expenditures of the government so highly as to create the necessity of higher duties.’

Moore rebuked the Congressmen of the swing States – particularly Pennsylvania – for auctioning off their votes. ‘In the glowing pages of Gibbon we read that, when public and private virtue and true patriotism had become extinct at Rome, and liberty itself had sought a more congenial dwelling-place, far away from the corruptions of that imperial city, that Empire, the then-mistress of the world, was put up and sold to the highest bidder,’ explained Moore. ‘Have we so far degenerated that the chief honors of this great Republic, and the control of its destinies, are also to be offered to the highest bidder?’

Responding to the Republicans’ call for ‘protection for protection’s sake,’ Moore refuted the old mercantilist theory of protection and defended the classical-liberal theory of free trade. ‘The honourable gentleman from Vermont endeavors to ridicule the doctrines of free trade,’ explained Moore, referring to the bill’s author, Vermont Republican Justin Morrill. ‘The principles of free trade have been approved by the ablest statesmen and public economists in the world; by such men as Jeremy Bentham, Adam Smith, and Sir Robert Peel.’ As an example, Moore cited the economic case of Great Britain, which had increased her prosperity and power by repealing her restrictive trade policy. ‘Though sternly opposed by those interested in maintaining the system of protection, and despite the forebodings of ruin and disaster which were to follow, these principles were partially adopted by England years ago, and their success has vindicated the wisdom of those who first incorporated them into her legislation,’ argued Moore. ‘The monarchies of the Old World are abandoning these antiquated notions of monopoly and restriction, and are now opening wide their ports to the commerce and free exchanges of the world.’ Free trade even cultivated peace between rival world powers such as Great Britain and France, noted Moore, replacing military conflict with economic cooperation. Moore cited the United States as another example, showing that the reduction of tariffs in 1846 was followed by an increase in imports and tax revenue – that is, as trade increased, so did the revenue collected from taxes on trade. Moore suspected, however, that the Republican Party’s official position on protective tariffs was a ‘sectional’ question rather than a ‘financial’ question – that is, a form of rent-seeking for its section. ‘The gentleman well knows that while the chief burdens will fall on the South, his constituents will be benefited by a high protective tariff,’ Moore remarked of Morrill. ‘No wonder, then, that self-interest has blinded his clear understanding, and made him so earnest an advocate of the protective policy.

Hoisting the Republican Party (which called for higher internal improvements in addition to higher tariffs) on its own petard, Moore objected that protectionist tariffs, by increasing the price of coal and iron, in turn reduced the number of internal-improvements projects which could be undertaken – in particular, the railroads. ‘Is it not enough that for every mile of railroad which may be constructed, over one thousand dollars have now to be paid to the iron manufacturers of this country?’ asked Moore. ‘Can gentlemen be so blind as to believe that the mechanics and agriculturalists of this country will be content to pay to the manufacturers more than twenty-four dollars of their honest earnings out of every $100 expended in the purchase of iron?’

Moore denounced the Morrill Tariff’s policy of levying ‘specific duties’ on particular items rather than a uniform duty, objecting that this concealed the tax burden from the people. ‘Specific duties do very well in those governments where every expedient is resorted to to procure money from the people,’ remarked Moore. ‘Where their expenditures are upon a gigantic scale, and a certain amount is absolutely necessary to preserve the public faith and credit. Moore believed, however, that American representatives should not deal with their constituents through ‘fraud,’ but in ‘an open and manly manner.’ According to Moore, ‘The laws ought to be so plain and simple that they may be comprehended by every individual, even of the commonest understanding.’ Moore then highlighted the difference between direct and indirect taxation, the latter of which he considered ‘at best a contrivance to tax the people, and, at the same time, keep them in ignorance of the amount that is levied on them.’ Imagine, suggested Moore, if instead of the tariffs’ ‘invisible tax-gatherer,’ a ‘common tax-gatherer’ demanded that each man pay to the industrialists a bounty of $24 for every $100 he spent. ‘Yet this is the amount of tribute now levied on the consumers for that favoured class,’ Moore pointed out, ‘and still they clamour for more.’

‘The people whom I have the honour to represent do not object to bear their full share of the taxation necessary to support this government,’ explained Moore. ‘They are also willing for the manufacturers to derive all the benefits which may accrue to them from the incidental protection afforded under a revenue tariff.’ Moore made clear, however, that his constituents ‘are not content to be taxed beyond what the wants of the government may require.’ As examples of such illegitimate wants, Moore listed ‘the ironmongers and manufacturers of the North,’ ‘the thousand and one cormorants who feed and fatten on public spoils,’ ‘marble palaces for custom-houses, court-houses, post offices, and light-houses,’ ‘New England seamen for catching codfish,’ ‘a large standing army in time of peace,’ and ‘printing and publishing costly books which few can get and none ever read.’

When Morrill accused Southerners of an ‘ignorant impatience of taxation,’ Moore protested that ‘the taxing power has always been viewed with jealousy by every free people’ and that ‘no free people of the same intelligence and spirit ever submitted to such unjust and oppressive taxation.’  According to Moore, taxation in the United States had always been unequal. ‘While one section has contributed much the largest share of revenue, it has received back but little in the way of appropriations,’ explained Moore. ‘While it has been a heavy burden to one, it has been a bounty to the other.’ If the ‘onerous taxation’ of the tariffs of 1816, 1824, 1828, and 1842 had ‘been imposed by a monarch,’ suggested Moore, then ‘he would have shared the fate of Charles I of England: “the block would have drunk his gore and his head have saddened in the sun.”’ Moore traced the belief ‘that taxation without consent was tyranny’ from the Declaration of Independence to the Magna Carta, adding that ‘the doctrines of passive obedience and unconditional submission’ had fallen into disgrace after the Glorious Revolution rejected the despotic reigns of Charles II and James II. Moore denounced the ‘system of iniquitous legislation’ that produced the Morrill Tariff and lamented the South’s minority status within the Union. ‘Go on, then, gentlemen; pass this odious protective tariff bill; legalise the robbery of the South,’ exclaimed Moore. ‘We are in a small minority here, and therefore powerless to protect our constituents.’ Moore warned, however, that despite the South’s ‘past forbearance,’ the ‘old revolutionary fire’ may soon be rekindled.  ‘God grant,’ prayed Moore, ‘that the example of Hampden, in resisting the illegal tax on ship money, and of our fathers is resisting the illegal though trifling tax of threepence per pound on tea, and of all those who have periled life and fortune in the cause of liberty and independence, may not be lost upon the South; but that every son of hers may so set in the future as to prove to the world that they “know their rights, and knowing, dare maintain them.”’

The next week, on May 8th, Houston also spoke against the ‘exorbitant and unjust’ Morrill Tariff. ‘The taxing power of the government, and its duty growing out of the exercise of that power, in view of the constitutional grant, present questions which, in my judgment, are not surpassed in importance by any ever agitated in an American Congress,’ declared Houston. Although Houston admitted that the ‘fate of the government’ depended on the resolution of the ongoing slavery crisis, he avowed that ‘no question connected with the government can be of more interest or importance than those growing out of the bill under consideration.’

With sarcasm, Houston complimented the Ohio Republican John Sherman (brother of the Yankee warlord W.T. Sherman) for conceding that ‘a duty levied upon imports is a tax upon those who consume such imports.’ This concession, remarked Houston, clarified the question before the people: ‘Whether they are willing to be thus taxed in their necessary consumption, not because the government needs to money, but to prosper and enrich the manufacturing interests.’

‘An effort is now being made to increase the duties to a point much higher than they were under the law of 1846, upon the alleged ground that our receipts in the Treasury are too small,’ claimed Houston. Specifically, Houston warned that the Republicans were facetiously arguing for a return to the tariff of 1846 over the tariff of 1857, the latter of which had reduced rates and been followed by a reduction in revenue. The reduction in revenue, however, resulted from the Panic of 1857. ‘Under such circumstances, how could we expect the usual amount of imports or the usual amount of receipts into the Treasury?’ asked Houston. ‘A prudent man in a case like this, and at a time like this, would reduce his expenses and husband his means so as to be able to weather the storm and pass safely through the crisis.’ Indeed, Houston found the idea of permanently raising taxes during a recovery from a recession in order to recoup a temporary shortfall in revenue to be perverse: the government should ‘bring its expenditures to a point where they could be met by its income’ and ‘avoid an increase of taxation.’

Furthermore, continued Houston, revenue under the 1857 rates was growing each year and in 1860 was estimated to exceed the average revenue under the 1846 rates ($56 million and $50 million, respectively). By 1861, revenue was estimated to reach $60 million. ‘You can but discover,’ noted Houston, ‘that as the country recovers from the very disastrous effects of the crash of 1857, as confidence is restored, commerce and trade become more healthy and active, business of all kinds is becoming prosperous, and, of course, increasing largely the revenue from imports.’ Moreover, under the rates of the Morrill Tariff, 1859’s revenue would have totaled $72,113,135.25 – over $20 million the average revenue under the 1846 rates! ‘Let me ask gentlemen what they propose to do with $72,113,135.25 per annum?’ Houston asked the Republicans. ‘Why take it out of the pockets of the people?’ To Houston, the answer was clear: ‘Their object is not an increase of revenue, but protection.’

Houston defended the classical-liberal theory of free trade, which had taken deep root in the South due to her trade-based economy. ‘The true policy of the United States is to have its commerce as free as possible and unshackled as may be consistent with a proper revenue tariff,’ maintained Houston. ‘The trade of nations consists in their interchange of products, and such trade should be encouraged instead of restrained by an unnecessary duty.’ Houston answered some of the most persistent objections to free trade. Trade deficits? ‘Who authorised Congress to say, by law, how much and what the people should wear or eat? That is their business to determine, not ours.’ Foreign debts? ‘I could wish the purchases could have been made at home, yet I have no right to controul them as to the market in which they trade, nor has Congress such power.’

Houston welcomed protection from foreign competition which domestic industries naturally gained from tariffs – ‘I would gladly see them all prosper’ – but objected to tariffs which were erected to restrain trade rather than collect revenue. ‘We all know that any duty upon foreign goods imported into the United States affords an incidental benefit to the manufacturers of like goods here,’ explained Houston. ‘All I ask, as a representative of the consumers, is that, while the present policy prevails, you make a fair and proper assessment of the duties in the true sense of the Constitution; and let the incidents be as beneficial to other interests as they may, if the duty is a fair one, the incidents are legitimate. Yet according to Houston, the Morrill Tariff was the opposite of this compromise between free trade and protection. ‘The friends of this bill intend to compel the people to trade at home, at much higher prices, by driving away foreign competition,’ concluded Houston, ‘by fettering and restricting our trade.’

On 21 January 1861, after learning that Alabama has seceded from the Union, Moore and Houston resigned from the Congress. Earlier, when presented with a statement, which read, in part, that ‘the Republicans are resolute in their purpose to grant nothing that will or ought to satisfy the South’ and ‘the honour, safety, and independence of the Southern people require the organisation of a Southern Confederacy,’ Moore (who would soon enlist in the Confederate army) signed his name but Houston (who was a Unionist and a member of the compromise-seeking Committee of Thirty-Three) refused. ‘The election of…a sectional party, avowedly hostile to the domestic institutions and to the peace and security of the people of the State of Alabama, preceded by many and dangerous infractions of the Constitution of the United States by many of the States and people of the Northern section,’ declared the Convention, ‘is a political wrong of so insulting and menacing a character as to justify the people of the State of Alabama in the adoption of prompt and decided measures for their future peace and security.’ According to the Convention, Alabama ‘is, and of right ought to be a sovereign and independent State.’

Alabama, along with other seceding States, dispatched commissioners to the States of the Upper South to convince them to join them. The Alabama commissioner to Kentucky, Stephen F. Hale, recounted how the North had ‘waged an unholy crusade against our lives, our property, and the constitutional rights guaranteed to us by the compact of our fathers.’ Hale then recounted how the South, by contrast, had not only ‘freely conceded’ to the North her constitutional rights, ‘protected’ the person and property of her citizens, and ‘enforced’ every law of the Congress, but also ‘submitted, ever since the foundation of the government with scarcely a murmur, to the protection of their shipping, manufacturing, and commercial interest, by odious bounties, discriminatory tariffs, and unjust navigation laws, passed by the federal government to the prejudice and injury of their own citizens.’ According to Alabama’s two commissioners to North Carolina, ‘The benefits that have been conferred upon them in the shape of tariff laws, navigation laws, fishing bounties, land laws [i.e. homestead laws], and internal-improvement laws, have been important aids to their mutual prosperity – a prosperity which is, in fact, to a great extent, the result of burdens upon the agricultural interests of the South.’

The Republican Party capitalised on the departure of the Southern Congressmen to pass the Morrill Tariff (along with the rest of their pro-North/anti-South agenda) into law. ‘There is a manifest purpose of the Black Republicans in both Houses of Congress, to use the power they may have, when the Senators and Representatives of the Cotton States leave here, to enact every species of legislation which hate of the South and lust of power and plunder may suggest,’ Alabama’s U.S. Senator, Clement C. Clay, had warned his State’s secession convention in an astonishingly prescient letter from Washington, D.C. ‘Bills extending the districts for the collection of revenue, so as to authorise collections on board of war vessels in view of Southern ports – increasing the tariff and making it discriminate more against the South – increasing the army and navy – calling for volunteers and offering them bounties in land and money – employing the militia – authorising loans and issuing Treasury notes – indeed, every bill will be passed which they can pass, and may deem necessary to strengthen the arm of government, and to enable Mr. Lincoln to enforce payment of revenue at Southern ports or to blockade them, or to commence war upon the South, as soon as he is installed in office.’

As the Lower South reunited in Alabama’s capital city of Montgomery as the Confederate States of America, the remaining States assembled in Washington, D.C. at a Peace Convention, the Congress scrambled to find a compromise, and commissioners from the Upper-South (especially Virginia) met with President Lincoln to advise against war. The Republican Party, aware that any compromise would weaken their power, rejected all of the solutions which Northern and Southern moderates such as Houston proposed. ‘We have just carried an election on principles fairly stated to the people,’ explained Lincoln, somewhat presumptuously for a candidate with only 39% of the popular vote and no electoral votes south of the Mason-Dixon Line. ‘Now we are told in advance, the government shall be broken up, unless we surrender to those we have beaten, before we take the offices.’ According to Lincoln, ‘If we surrender, it is the end of us, and of the government.’ Lincoln also balked at the prospect of losing Southern tariff revenue which accepting secession entailed. ‘But what am I to do in the meantime with those men at Montgomery? Am I to let them go on and open Charleston, etc. as ports of entry with their ten-percent tariff?’ Lincoln asked one of the Virginians sent to persuade him of peace. ‘What, then, would become of my tariff?’ When another Virginia commissioner recommended the abandonment of Fort Sumter, Lincoln exclaimed, ‘If I do that, what would become of my revenue? I might as well shut up housekeeping at once!’ Accordingly, in his First Inaugural Address, Lincoln threatened ‘invasion,’ ‘force,’ and ‘bloodshed’ against any States which resisted federal laws – in particular, the Morrill Tariff.

After provoking the Confederates into firing the first shot at Fort Sumter – under the pretense of reinforcing federal forts and collecting federal taxes – Lincoln unilaterally declared war, driving the Upper South out of the Union and into the Confederacy. ‘It is impossible to doubt that it was Mr. Lincoln’s policy, under the name of reinforcing the laws, to retake the forts, to collect the revenue of the United States in our ports, and to reduce the seceded states to obedience to the behests of his party,’ warned the former Alabama Unionist Robert H. Smith. ‘His purpose, therefore, was war upon and subjugation of our people.’

Houston went home to Athens and took no part in the war, although two of his sons fought for the Confederacy. On 2 May 1862, his hometown was sacked in ‘the Rape of Athens.’ Homes and stores were ransacked and vandalised (whatever could not be stolen was destroyed); women were terrorised (slaves were gang-raped and a pregnant white lady miscarried and died); churches were desecrated (Bibles were torn to shreds and pews hacked into firewood). The Yankee commander – Ivan V. Turchaninov, a Russian-born colonel who had ordered his troops to collectively punish the townspeople for the actions of partisans in the area – was subsequently found guilty and dismissed from the army by a court martial under future President James A. Garfield. Public opinion in the North, however, demanded a new war of conquest as opposed to the old war of conciliation. Even Garfield, who initially commented that Turchaninov ‘committed the most shameful outrages upon this country here that the history of this war has seen,’ conceded that ‘until the rebels are made to feel that rebellion is a crime which the government will punish, there is no hope of destroying it.’ In the end, Lincoln overruled the verdict, reinstating and promoting Turchaninov to the rank of general. ‘I don’t see any use in trying them for what they did here,’ sighed Mary Anne Fielding, a diarist from Athens. ‘It will be done again all over the South, where they have the power.’

A colonel of the Eleventh Alabama Infantry, Moore was mortally wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines on 31 May 1862. The battle marked a turning point not only of the Peninsula Campaign, but also of the entire war: the Federal advance on the Confederate capital city of Richmond, Virginia, was stopped and the Napoleonic-level genius General Robert E. Lee took command. Like so many Southern officers, Moore had personally led an attack which beat back the enemy at the cost of his own life. According to Moore’s commander, Brig. General Cadmus M. Wilcox, ‘His loss is scarcely reparable.’

Moore, as he had hoped, proved himself a son of the South who had not forgotten the cause of liberty of independence was not lost and who had shown to the world that he knew his rights and dared to maintain them. Hundreds of thousands of other Southern men and boys just like him – and hundreds of thousands more Northern men and boys not too different, either – were killed in a war started over tariffs.

In 1866, Houston was elected to represent Alabama in the Senate, but the Republican Party (at this point, more of a revolutionary tribunal than a mere political party) refused to seat Congressmen from former Confederate States. Although they had submitted to President Andrew Johnson’s conditions of readmission – abolishing slavery and repudiating secession – the Republican-controulled Congress decreed that they were no longer States at all, but rather ‘military districts,’ dissolving their civil governments, installing martial law, rewriting their constitutions, enfranchising their black populations, and disenfranchising their white populations. The conquered Confederate States were thus deprived of their Article IV right to a republican government, Article V right to representation in the Senate, and Fifth-Amendment right to due process. By 1874, however, Alabama whites overcame the corrupt Republican coalition of Northern ‘carpetbaggers,’ Southern ‘scalawags,’ and freedmen, electing Democrats to the General Assembly and Houston as Governor.

‘Southern Congressmen were not being stupid or delusional in voting almost unanimously against protectionist tariffs in 1824, 1828, and 1860, or in outlawing protectionist tariffs altogether in the Confederate Constitution,’ argues DiLorenzo. ‘They were voting their economic self-interest, and the basic economics of international trade…bear this out.’

Indeed, the great Southern statesman, John C. Calhoun, was often exasperated with Yankees who lectured Southerners on economics while themselves clinging to tariffs for protection:

The case, then, fairly stated between us and the manufacturing States is, that the tariff gives them a protection against foreign competition in our own market, by diminishing, in the same proportion, our capacity to compete with our rivals, in the general market of the world. ‘They who say that they cannot compete with foreigners at their own doors, without an advantage of 45 percent, expect us to meet them abroad under disadvantage equal to their encouragement.

We are told, by those who pretend to understand our interest better than we do, that the excess of production and not the tariff, is the evil which afflicts us […] We would feel more disposed to respect the spirit in which the advice is offered, if those from whom it comes accompanied it with the weight of their example. They also, occasionally, complain of low prices; but instead of diminishing the supply, as a remedy for the evil, demand an enlargement of the market, by the exclusion of all competition.

The economic cost of tariffs was fairly straightforward: tariffs drove up the price of the European goods primarily imported by Southerners, which as a result drove down Southern exports to Europe and the exchange-value of Southern exporters’ foreign-currency holdings. Jeffrey R. Hummel, in his groundbreaking libertarian-revisionist history of the Civil War, Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men, concurs with Calhoun and describes the futile efforts of historians and economists to prove otherwise. ‘At least with respect to the tariff’s adverse impact, Southerners were not only absolutely correct but displayed a sophisticated understanding of economics,’ argues Hummel. ‘The tariff was inefficient; it not only redistributed wealth from farmers and planters to manufacturers and laborers but overall made the country poorer.’

The crisis of slavery was certainly the main – yet oversimplified and ‘presentised’ – cause of secession. Secession was not an act of war, however, and thus the cause of Southern secession was not necessarily the cause of the war. In other words, why the South seceded was not the same as why the North invaded. While the South seceded to protect her way of life (of which slavery was the cornerstone), the North invaded not to abolish slavery, but to impose her agenda (of which tariffs were the cornerstone).

Acknowledging the role of tariffs in Southern secession and Northern invasion does not require denying the role of slavery – just some historical context and intellectual honesty.

 

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