Brooks Simpson on “Centennial Wars”

By: Professor Brooks Simpson

Yesterday I [copied Phil Leigh’s “Centennial Wars” essay which is his] attempt at offering an interpretation of the coming of the Civil War. As several readers noted, Al Mackey made some telling points that call into question certain aspects of Leigh’s interpretation of the Lincoln administration’s position on slavery. I choose therefore to offer several other observations.

First, it appears that Leigh has no problem associating secession with the desire to protect slavery. He passes by that issue altogether … and without secession, there’s no war. But it’s perfectly true that secession may not have guaranteed war, at least the war that broke out in the spring of 1861. In his mind the chief question is why the North ultimately refused to accept Confederate independence.

Leigh opines that historical interpretations owe much to the time in which they are fashioned as well as the perspectives of those historians who fashion them. Fair enough, although he fails to explain how his own perspectives and the time he lives in show us the strengths and weaknesses of his own interpretation. Moreover, although I have much respect for James McPherson, his Battle Cry of Freedom is but one of many books that one would read to gain an understanding of how historians today understand the coming of the Civil War. Indeed, one of the weaknesses one often finds in such discussions on Civil War groups is that so few people (including, it appears, Leigh) are familiar with that body of scholarship. I see nothing here about David Potter, Don Fehrenbacher, or Michael Holt, for example, and their work has contributed a great deal to the discussion of how and why secession and war came. Nor do I see any reference to the equally considerable literature on the great secession winter of 1860-61 and the ensuing Sumter crisis, although that literature has much to say about Leigh’s assumptions about the attitudes of the Northern business community and the debate over how to respond to secession in the North. In short, Leigh’s interpretation rests upon at best a passing acquaintance with a handful of books, several of which seem cherry-picked to support his own views.  He should dip deeply into that literature, perhaps starting with Russell McClintock’s fine study of the northern response to secession, before he offers his lightly-researched claims.

Leigh focuses instead on certain economic issues at stake, specifically US tariff revenue. It is not clear as to whether he understands how a tariff operates. Tariffs are duties laid on imported goods. Thus, a low Confederate tariff (or, for that matter, a high one) had no impact whatsoever on US tariff rates (as opposed to total revenues): the US would have simply lost whatever tariff revenue came from ports under Confederate control. US tariffs protected US industries from foreign (primarily British) competition. Moreover, the Confederates would have to develop their own merchant marine rather quickly, for what goods would arrive at Confederate ports would be carried by foreign carriers, including the US. Those shipping charges add up.

The British (and much of Europe) were at least as dependent on northern-grown foodstuffs as Britain (and to a lesser extent, France) was dependent on the South for cotton. Thus it would not behoove those countries (and especially Britain) to engage in economic warfare against the United States. Moreover, if one lets the Confederacy go, it would be a seven-state Confederacy, which would have been much weaker economically in terms of developing a manufacturing sector. That would have made the Confederacy little more than an economic colony of Britain, selling off raw agricultural materials in exchange for British manufactured goods.

What Leigh implies is something else: that the Confederacy might well have waged economic war against the US by importing foreign goods without levying a tariff and then smuggling those goods northward, evading the US tariff and disrupting the US manufacturing economy. One would welcome documentation of that idea. There would have been an interesting resale market to the US, and that’s worth considering, although those imported duties would have been subject to tariffs as well (Leigh’s smuggling fantasy notwithstanding).

One might try to help Leigh out by saying that such a threat, while it had no basis in fact, haunted many Northerners, moving them to support war. The last link is critical: if such fears do not lead to a call for war, then Leigh’s model collapses. It would be nice if Leigh could document a connection between the concerns he cites and a call for war, but he fails to do so. One could offer evidence that contradicts Leigh’s argument. That the US Congress finally passed the Morrill Tariff after the departure of the first wave of Confederate states suggests that many people in the North were not too concerned about raising the tariff. If anything, secession facilitated this long-desired policy goal. One looks in vain for a discussion of cabinet deliberations to present evidence in support of Leigh’s assertion, and so one can be excused for discarding it as a policy consideration.

Leigh fails to consider other issues in his speculation of what would have happened. For example what do we make of the US being relieved of the responsibility for returning fugitive slaves that escaped the Confederacy? After all, the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 would not apply to slaves held in an independent Confederacy. Oddly enough, the only way the US had an incentive to protect slavery in the CSA was by going to war with it while promising to minimize the damage inflicted on slavery in the Confederacy as a prelude to a limited war and a negotiated reunion. All bets are off with an independent Confederacy, one that might in the end have found itself turning to none other than the US to seek a new source for slaves. Secession turned the interstate slave trade (once that benefitted Virginia, for example, as a seller) into an international slave trade (read the Confederate Constitution to see that it tried to get around this problem by permitting the Confederacy to purchase slaves from the USA). Seems to me that the Confederacy knew that slavery had something to do with it.

But Leigh is not interested in these considerations. At best he is interested in Northern perceptions of US economic interests in considering whether to resist secession. Here he doesn’t understand that the “duty-free” loophole upon which he places so much emphasis simply existed because the Lincoln administration knew that to levy such duties would be to recognize Confederate independence. Levying those duties would have come as a consequence of such recognition. What Leigh is suggesting, in fact, is that the Confederacy was willing to wage economic war upon the USA, which would mean that it was interested, not in being left alone, but in ruining the US, which would give the US reason to declare war.

Leigh’s explanation, in short, justifies a US decision to go to war and places the Confederacy in the position of forcing that war upon the US through economic warfare designed to destroy the US economy. This is at odds with an interpretation that stresses that the Confederacy was formed by people seeking liberty and freedom and the right to be left alone. Rather, from the beginning, as Leigh implies, the Confederacy was an aggressive force concerned not with simply independence but also empire. Otherwise, he’d have to argue that it was the Northern perception of an aggressive Confederacy which would have led to war, and then discount that perception … but a peace-loving Confederacy would not have fired on Fort Sumter, now, would it?

One can simply dismiss Leigh’s observation that once war began some businesses saw the opportunity to profit from it. After all, that does nothing to explain why war came in the first place: certain businesses will always profit from a resulting war, so the observation is commonplace and its utility in supporting the Leigh thesis is dubious at best and useless at worst.  Even more confusing is his claim that northeast industries could then “monopolize commerce with the Midwest.” Given that the South had nothing to offer the Midwest, such would be the case in any case. All the more reason, one might assume, for the Northeast to bid the Confederacy good luck, so that it could monopolize that commerce without having to worry about waging a war that would affect its trading around the world. In short, Leigh’s speculations about the impact of waging war on the US economy overlook a great deal (and lack documentary evidence in support of those explanations).

Leigh’s final paragraph (he shaved off a ranting paragraph about Civil War historiography, which you can find in a previous version here) adds nothing to his argument. After all, his discussion omits altogether an explanation of why seven southern states seceded, although secession’s advocates would have told you that it was to protect slavery. Nor does the discussion of the relative impact of “Roots” and “Gone With the Wind” make any sense. Still, if as Leigh suggests, these things run in 37 year cycles (which they do not, but then he’s poorly educated when it comes to the historiography of Civil War causation), then he can expect that his effort to offer a new framework has at best 37 years to go … although I suspect it will be more like 37 seconds.

It’s time to give up your ghost, Phil Leigh. So you want to be treated like a historian? Welcome … although, judging from the above, you’ll find it very rough going … and, in the end, if you say everyone else is simply projecting their beliefs and circumstances upon the past, then who are you to say that you’re any different?

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25 thoughts on “Brooks Simpson on “Centennial Wars”

  1. Phil Leigh Post author

    “Nor does the discussion of the relative impact of “Roots” and “Gone With the Wind” make any sense.”

    Either he is seeking to deny the obvious by attempting to dismiss it, or Professor Simpson fails to grasp that the “Roots” mini-series put race and slavery at the center of the public perception of the Civil War nearly forty years ago. Yet it remains his obsession to the exclusion of any other contributing factors. As a history professor he should be embarrassed to trail the public by forty years. But, whether he is embarrassed or not, his remark reveals the uselessness of his interpretations, lectures, and writings.

    A fitting epitaph for Simpson would be “Died age forty, buried age 80.”

    Reply
    1. Brooks D. Simpson

      Well, Phil, I guess you can’t argue the merits of your case. Simply put, you exaggerate the importance of “Roots.” You minimize or ignore altogether a great deal else. But since you are now in your usual snarky mode, I see that further discussion with you is useless. Suffice it to say that you sure took your time to post selected versions of the responses left on your blog.

      Reply
      1. Phil Leigh Post author

        It did not take much time this morning.

        I just don’t waste much time thinking about you.

        As for your dismissal of the impact of “Roots” on Civil War public memory, you should consider how often your hero James McPherson cites the countervailing influence of “Gone With the Wind.” If it’s conceded that Margret Mitchell’s story had influence, only a fool would argue that Alex Haley’s did not.

  2. Phil Leigh Post author

    “Thus [the need for Yankee food grains] would not behoove those countries (and especially Britain) to engage in economic warfare against the United States.”

    In truth, Great Britain concluded that the Morrill Tariff was an opening shot by the USA in an economic war against *them*. They were actually considering just how far they should let the USA push them around without a military response.

    Reply
  3. Phil Leigh Post author

    “One looks in vain for a discussion of cabinet deliberations to present evidence in support of Leigh’s assertion [about the importance of tariffs], and so one can be excused for discarding it as a policy consideration.”

    To the contrary.

    The fact the Lincoln’s cabinet would not discuss a compromise on the Morrill Tariff is compelling evidence that it was nonnegotiable. Lincoln and the Republicans were ready to go to war to enforce it, whereas they did discuss abandoning forts and providing assurances to protect slavery where it was legal. In short, they would compromise on slavery, but not the tariff.

    Reply
  4. Phil Leigh Post author

    “One can simply dismiss Leigh’s observation that once war began some businesses saw the opportunity to profit from it.”

    Before passage of the Morrill Tariff most Northern business leaders favored compromise in order to keep the Union intact. But toward the end of March 1861 a group visited Lincoln to impress upon him the importance of coercing the cotton states to stay in the Union so that the tariff could be collected.

    Reply
  5. Phil Leigh Post author

    “Even more confusing is his claim that northeast industries could then “monopolize commerce with the Midwest.” Given that the South had nothing to offer the Midwest, such would [not?] be the case in any case.”

    Given Simpson’s affection for Grant, the point should not be confusing.

    Midwestern states wanted the Mississippi River set free for trade in order to avoid too much dependence upon commerce through the lakes, rivers, canals, and railroads to-and-from the East.

    Reply
      1. Phil Leigh Post author

        “Transporting goods is not the same as buying and selling goods.”

        Transportation, warehousing, and financing are all part of the commerce of trade. Northeastern businessmen correctly expected to capture it all as traffic from the Midwest shifted from the north-south axis of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers to the east-west axis of the lakes, canals, and railroads. Thus, they could foresee selfish gains forcing the war.

  6. Phil Leigh Post author

    “Here [Phil] doesn’t understand that the “duty-free” loophole upon which he places so much emphasis simply existed because the Lincoln administration knew that to levy such duties would be to recognize Confederate independence. Levying those duties would have come as a consequence of such recognition.”

    ???????

    This is beyond a non sequitur. It doesn’t make any sense.

    In his first inaugural Lincoln basically said he was ready to go to war to collect the imposed duties of the Morrill Tariff. Lincoln did not tolerate any duty free loophole much less permit one to “simply exist.”

    Reply
    1. Brooks D. Simpson

      I guess you don’t understand the simple point that if the Lincoln administration recognizes an independent Confederacy, then the CSA is a foreign country, whose exports (including goods from third parties shipped first to the Confederacy and then to the United Sates) would be subject to a tariff. Thus, levying a tariff on goods coming from New Orleans to Chicago represents a de facto recognition of Confederate independence.

      Reply
      1. Phil Leigh Post author

        “I guess you don’t understand the simple point that..levying a tariff on goods coming from New Orleans to Chicago represents a de facto recognition of Confederate independence.”

        Of course I recognize it just as I understand it is merely Simpson’s interpretation that it is the only reason Republicans would go to war over a tariff. Unsurprisingly the professor ignores the more cogent point that Lincoln had long been a strong advocate of high tariffs since his days as a Whig Congressman, and that a protective tariff was a crucial plank of the Republican platform. It is obvious that Republicans wanted the tariff revenue because it was the prime source financing the government they dominated.

  7. Phil Leigh Post author

    “Leigh’s explanation, in short, justifies a US decision to go to war…”

    It does not justify it, but it does explain it.

    “…and places the Confederacy in the position of forcing that war upon the US through economic warfare designed to destroy the US economy.”

    The Republicans initiated economic warfare by insisting on welfare for domestic producers in the form of a protective tariff and public works spending. The duty differential between the USA and the CSA was strictly the difference between one side demanding corporate welfare and the other seeking only the money needed to run the government.

    Senator Stephen Douglas and other Northern Democrats begged Republicans to compromise on the tariff, but the incipient GOP was inflexible. The Republicans wanted a protective tariff and were ready to go to war to get it. The importance of the matter is underscored by the fact that high tariffs lasted for fifty years after the war and were only briefly reduced during Wilson’s presidency.

    Reply
  8. Phil Leigh Post author

    “One could offer evidence that contradicts Leigh’s argument. That the US Congress finally passed the Morrill Tariff after the departure of the first wave of Confederate states suggests that many people in the North were not too concerned about raising the tariff. If anything, secession facilitated this long-desired policy goal.”

    Simpson misses the point.

    Lincoln’s inaugural address was replete with assurances on the protection of slavery. He was not going to start a war to free the slaves. But he said he would use force to collect tariffs and protect the forts — forts which could be employed to enforce tariff collections if collections were resisted.

    Reply
  9. Phil Leigh Post author

    “Moreover, if one lets the Confederacy go, it would be a seven-state Confederacy, which would have been much weaker economically in terms of developing a manufacturing sector. That would have made the Confederacy little more than an economic colony of Britain, selling off raw agricultural materials in exchange for British manufactured goods.”

    That was partly what they wanted; a nation dedicated to minimal trade barriers that could obtain superior quality imported manufactured goods at lower prices and avoid welfare payments to domestic producers in the form of protective tariffs, subsidized public works, and other commercial subsidies.

    Reply
  10. Phil Leigh Post author

    “What Leigh is suggesting, in fact, is that the Confederacy was willing to wage economic war upon the USA…”

    Just the opposite.

    Republicans imposed economic warfare on the South with the protective Morrill Tariff enacted only two days before Lincoln took office. Southern states had opposed *protective* tariffs for decades. The Confederacy’s central government intended to rely upon tariffs as well, but only for enough money to run the government instead of an extra amount to inflate the prices of imported goods in order to provide welfare for domestic producers.

    IF the Confederacy was deliberately trying to destroy the USA, it would have adopted *no* tariffs, so as to maximize the differential between the two countries in order to provoke smuggling in to the USA. Instead the Confederate tariffs were about half as much as those of the First Morrill Tariff. The differential was the *protective* component that Republicans insisted all the states must pay.

    Reply
  11. Phil Leigh Post author

    “The British (and much of Europe) were at least as dependent on northern-grown foodstuffs as Britain (and to a lesser extent, France) was dependent on the South for cotton.”

    On the eve of the Civil War there was greater dependency on the South which accounted for close to 75% of US exports.

    Reply
      1. Phil Leigh Post author

        “You can’t eat cotton. The Europeans understood that.”

        Europeans also understood that food is purchased with money.

        The 75% – 80% of USA exports originating in the South on the eve of the war mostly went to Europe where they enabled the overseas economies to create the wealth needed to buy grain. About 20% – 25% of Great Britain’s economy was dependent upon cotton textiles at the outbreak of the war.

  12. Phil Leigh Post author

    “…the US would have simply lost whatever tariff revenue came from ports under Confederate control.”

    It would have also lost whatever duties failed to be collected by potentially widespread non-compliance from imported goods moving up the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. The essay cited alarming examples in both St. Louis and Cincinnati.

    Smuggling (by Northerners and Southerners) was a genuine threat to Northern *protective* tariff enforcement. As Lincoln explained, “Physically speaking, we cannot separate. We can not remove our respective sections from each other, nor build an impassable wall between them…the different parts of our country…cannot but remain face to face; and intercourse, either amicable or hostile, must continue between them.”

    Reply
  13. Phil Leigh Post author

    “Moreover, although I have much respect for James McPherson, his Battle Cry of Freedom is but one of many books that one would read to gain an understanding of how historians today understand the coming of the Civil War.”

    It is undoubtedly the most influential. I merely documented that McPherson readily admits that the 1960s Civil Rights movement shaped his interpretation of the Civil War through an affinity for abolitionism.

    Reply
  14. Phil Leigh Post author

    “Leigh opines that historical interpretations owe much to the time in which they are fashioned as well as the perspectives of those historians who fashion them.”

    That is the opinion of David Blight at Yale who morphed the concept into a dogma that the 20th Century viewpoint of historians prior to the 1960s Civil Rights movement were overly influenced by the economic boom of the 1920s and ensuing Great Depression.

    Yet Blight, and his acolytes, seemingly never consider that their own interpretations might be distorted by coming of age during the civil rights era of the last century.

    Reply
  15. Phil Leigh Post author

    “In [Phil’s] mind the chief question is why the North ultimately refused to accept Confederate independence.”

    It is the chief question often ignored in discussions about the causes of the Civil War.

    Most Sesquicentennial-era historians cite slavery references in the secession documents of the seven cotton states as the root cause of the war and thereby falsely equate the reasons for secession with the reasons the soldiers on each side chose to fight.

    Reply
    1. Brooks D. Simpson

      And yet Union soldiers did not fight to defend a protective tariff, so what’s your point? Did not the leaders of the Confederacy make clear their desire to defend slavery? Did not secessionists cite the protection and promotion of slavery as the prime reason they advocated secession?

      Reply
      1. Phil Leigh Post author

        “And yet Union soldiers did not fight to defend a protective tariff.”

        Just because Republicans wanted to fight to enforce the tariff does not mean that the typical Northern soldier fought for that reason. It is equally ridiculous to assume that the typical Southern soldier fought to defend slavery, although that viewpoint is commonly expressed on Simpson’s website where I have never seen him dispute it. Letters, by the thousands, from Southern soldiers repeatedly state they fought to defend their homeland, yet Simpson encourages the false viewpoint that even the two-thirds of Southern families that did not own slaves fought chiefly to defend slavery.

        “Did not secessionists cite the protection and promotion of slavery as the prime reason they advocated secession?”

        Did not Lincoln say in his first inaugural that he would not interfere with slavery in the states where it was legal? But did he not add the he *would* use force to enforce the tariff and protect the forts?

        Moreover four of the Southern states – with half the white population of the 11 Confederate states – remained in the Union until Lincoln’s call for troops to invade the cotton states. By Simpson’s reasoning if the war was about slavery for the four, they would have seceded along with the gulf states prior to the invasion.

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