Pious Cause apologists often dispute the claim that the South generated most of the federal revenue in the antebellum period. Yet a prominent Northern paper certainly believed that the South generated more than half of the tariff revenue that funded the federal gov’t. If the South was allowed to secede, the Daily Chicago Times, December 10, 1860, lamented: “In one single blow our foreign commerce must be reduced to less than one-half what it now is.” It was foreign commerce that generated the tariff revenue that funded the general government. Obviously, the Daily Chicago Times believed more than half of that revenue was generated by the South.

So did Southern statesman William Yancey who placed the Southern contribution to the general treasury as being between fifty and seventy five percent: “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…” (Equal Rights in a Common Government, William Yancey)

Adding fuel to the fire, Southerners believed that 75% of the revenue collected was being disproportionately spent in the North:

“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… The people of the Southern States are not only taxed for the benefit of the Northern States, but after the taxes are collected, three-fourths of them are expended at the North.” (Address of South Carolina to the Slaveholding States Convention, 1860)

Henry L. Benning, for whom Fort Benning, Georgia was named, said “Eighty-five millions is the amount of the drains from the South to the North in one year, – drains in return for which the South receives nothing.” Benning then anticipated the war if the North was deprived of that revenue:

“The North cut off from Southern cotton, rice, tobacco, and other Southern products would lose three fourths of her commerce, and a very large proportion of her manufactures. And thus those great fountains of finance would sink very low. . . . Would the North in such a condition as that declare war against the South?” (Speech before the Georgia legislature, November 19, 1860)

His rhetorical question was answered in 1861 when the South justifiably seceded to stop the economic bleeding and the North invaded to maintain its source of revenue.

Northerners knew that a protectionist tariff would ruin the South economically. On 27 September 1860, with a 47% Tariff awaiting a vote, Republican Leader Thaddeus Stevens, sponsor of the Morrill Tariff, said that “the Tariff would impoverish the southern and western states, but that was essential for advancing national greatness and the prosperity of industrial workers.” Northerners applauded while Southerners called for nullification and Secession.

Southern papers asserted in 1860 that if Republicans were elected the promise of high tariffs would plunder the South: “To plunder the South for the benefit of the North, by a new Protective Tariff, will be one of their first measures of Northern sectional dominion.” (Charleston Mercury, 11 Oct. 1860)

Apologists for the “pious cause” argue that the protectionist Morrill Tariff could not have motivated secession because had the early seceding States not seceded the South would have had the votes to block Morrill.  But Southern vote counters prior to secession did not believe the South had the votes to defeat the Morrill Tariff. What THEY believed is what matters regarding the motive for secession:

“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.” (Address of South Carolina to the Slaveholding States Convention, 1860)

On 30 April 1860, well prior to Lincoln’s election, Representative Sydenham Moore on the floor of the House spoke against the Republican Party’s Morrill Tariff, of which he said was:

“… scarcely less oppressive than was the memorable tariff act of 1828, known throughout the South as the bill of abominations…. 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.” 

Moore obviously did not believe the votes were there to defeat Morrill. And he certainly believed that one of the issues motivating secession was this tariff. Moore tied the tariff issue directly to the secession option saying:

“…. despite the South’s past forbearance, the old revolutionary fire may soon be rekindled. God grant, that the example of Hampden, in resisting the illegal tax on ship money, and of our fathers in resisting the illegal though trifling tax of three pence 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.”

Certainly, the tariff issue alone was in Southern minds plenty of reason to secede. On May 8, 1860, Southern Representative George Houston also spoke against the ‘exorbitant and unjust’ Morrill Tariff. Note he begins by calling it the most important question ever before an American Congress:

“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. No question connected with the government can be of more interest or importance than those growing out of the bill under consideration.”

Rep. Houston then drives home the Constitutional objection to protective tariffs:

“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. 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. The friends of this bill intend to compel the people to trade at home, at much higher prices, by driving away foreign competition, by fettering and restricting our trade.”

Protectionist tariff was just motive for secession, but it did not stand alone. Houston would say that it was not just one issue that led to the contemplation of secession:

“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, 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. Alabama is, and of right ought to be a sovereign and independent State.”

Secession had a “basic cause” that was evidenced by multiple “infractions.” Southerner William Yancey was certainly correct in analyzing the cause of secession to be more fundamental than just “slavery” or “tariffs;” both of which were in his word’s mere “symbols” of a more foundational cause, namely, Northern infidelity to the Constitution:

“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.”

Protectionist tariffs motivated secession as one of many “symbols” of Northern infidelity to the spirit and letter of the Constitution; just as slavery issues were yet more among many continual “occasions” of that same malady. It was this continuing infidelity that justified the unilateral secession of a Southern State just as James Madison had affirmed:

 “And in the event of a failure of every Constitutional resort, and an accumulation of usurpations and abuses, rendering passive obedience and non-resistance a greater evil, than resistance and revolution, there can remain but one resort, the last of all: an appeal from the cancelled obligations of the Constitutional compact, to original rights and the law of self-preservation…. and it cannot be doubted that a single member of the Union, in the extremity supposed, but in that only, would have a right, as an extra and ultra-constitutional right, to make the appeal.” (James Madison to Edward Everett, 28 August 1830)

Southern secession was indeed a just cause when protectionist tariffs evidenced Northern contempt for the Constitution – the document Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, called “the rotten bottom rail of a Virginia abstraction.” (Memories of the Men Who Saved the Union, Col. Don Piatt, 1887)

Rod O'Barr

Rod O’Barr is retired and lives in Tennessee with his wife of 45 years, Kathy. He has advanced degrees in Philosophy and Theology, and a lifelong interest in history. He is the webmaster of a WWII website and a member of both the Abbeville Institute and the SCV. When not enjoying time with his children he enjoys doing living history at local schools.


  • Tony c says:

    Thank you sir for a well written reminder of the truth.

  • Clif McGhar says:

    Great job on this Rod O’ Barr!

  • Ken Zeier says:

    1. The Constitution just allowed the game called government to be played. Once the game starts players cheat.
    2. Then it was ptotectionism now it’s globalism.
    3. The North took advantage of the South and the South took advantage of Africa.
    4. Since people operate the levers of government the only way to reduce or minimize corruption is to minimized its size. Forget budget reductions. We need budget eliminations as in entire departments eliminated and buildings sold off. Forget current talk about secession. Had the South succeeded in seceding it would likely have become a bloated government filled with corruption. That is unless one believes that the Southerners were particularly virtuous men and not fallen creatures, which I don’t subscribe to. (It is interesting that the War came after decades of the ‘new measures’ of men like the Pelagian Finney-ites.)

    • William Quinton Platt III says:

      The South took advantage of Africa? Would that be the South that was part of the British Empire for a half-dozen generations before the Revolution?

    • Les Branscum says:

      How did the South take advantage of Africa? Many Africans made a profit from trading fellow Africans to the Whites. Whites who were, by the way, mostly Northerners.

    • Douglas L Self says:

      Rilly? The South took “advantage” of AFRICA? Which AFRICANS were those? The chieftains of the tribes that CONQUERED their fellow tribes, and became gaudily rich by selling captives into slavery? Rich enough that they sent their sons to Europe, especially Britain, to be educated? Rich enough to buy what were then modern weapons of war so they could continue making war on the other tribes? Interesting to note that when the white man finally colonized Africa, the slave trade STOPPED, or at least was driven underground.

      And what of the fate of those Africans brought over via slavery, and their descendants? I like how one Cassius Clay, better known as Mohammed Ali, put it: “I’m glad my ‘great-granddaddy’ got on that boat”.

  • Jimmy Jacobson says:

    The more we learn about the war the less it is about slavery.
    1. Calling for troups to fight against another state.
    2. Suspention of habious corpus by the president.
    3. Declaration of war by the president.
    Im sure there is more.

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