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?