Figures of Merit

Figures don’t lie, but liars figure. – Anonymous

A 2010 Atlantic Magazine article criticized a Confederate Memorial Day resolution by the Texas State Senate mentioning that 98% of Texas Confederate soldiers never owned a slave. While admitting that the statement was technically accurate, the author added that it was a “deeply, deeply dishonest statistic.”

He was correct to note that the percentage of individual soldiers who owned slaves was not a valid figure of merit by which to measure slavery’s penetration in Civil War era Texas. That’s because the patriarch was the legal slaveholder in most families, and not his sons who were more numerous in the Confederate armies than were heads-of-households.

The better figure of merit is the 28% of Civil War Texas families that owned slaves.
Even though it is much larger than the 2% mentioned in the resolution, 28% is still a comparatively small percentage. If Texas families had voted on the basis of slave ownership then the secession plebiscite would have been decisively turned down, 72%-to-28%. As shall be explained, however, there may have been other motivations for secession.

While modern Civil War students correctly note that a reckoning limited only to the individual titled owners understates slavery’s diffusion in the South, they are less careful with other statistics that suggest Southerners had additional reasons to seek independence.

In the decades preceding secession, for example, the South consistently opposed protective tariffs while Northerners favored them. Consequently, such tariffs were outlawed in the Confederate constitution. The Atlantic article’s author is among those who dismiss Southern tariff complaints in a separate article. He provides the following chart to suggest that future Confederate state residents paid less than 6% of import duties on the eve of the Civil War even though they represented 29% of America’s population.

The chart is, to borrow a phrase, “deeply, deeply dishonest” because it falsely suggests that Southerners shared little of the tariff burden. It deceptively shows only where duties were collected and not where the consumers who purchased the imported items—thereby funding the tariff—were located.

The discrepancy chiefly results from the disproportionate share of duties collected in New York, which reflected two factors. First, the port of New York had long enjoyed a natural advantage because it could perennially accept ships of any draft, at any tide. Second, after New York organized transatlantic scheduled service—as opposed to delaying the departure of each ship until it was filled with cargo—the port was able to establish and dominate the “cotton trade triangle.”  Author Douglas Harper explains: 

Early and mid-19th century Atlantic trade was based on “packet lines”—groups of vessels offering scheduled services. It was a coastal trade at first, but when the Black Ball Line started running between New York and Liverpool in 1817, it became the way to do business across the pond.

The trick was to have a good cargo going each way. The New York packet lines succeeded because they sucked in all the eastbound cotton cargoes from the U.S. The northeast [alone] didn’t have enough volume of paying freight. So American vessels, usually owned in the Northeast, sailed off to a cotton port, carrying goods for the southern market. There they loaded cotton…for Europe. They steamed back from Europe loaded with manufactured goods, raw materials…and occasionally immigrants.

Since this “triangle trade” involved a domestic leg…[nearly all] foreign vessels were excluded from it (under the 1817 law). And since it was subsidized by the U.S. government, it was…the only game in town.

In Southern Wealth and Northern Profits Thomas Kettle quoted US Treasury statistics revealing that “the South” consumed one-third of imported dutiable items in 1859. Assuming all slave states—including those that did not later join the Confederacy—comprised the geographic “South,” then less than 8% of duties were collected in the region although it consumed one third of tariffed imports. Thus, 33% is the correct representation of the proportion of total tariffs paid by Southerners, which is about 4-times the amount implied by the above chart.

My Civil War Books:

The Confederacy at Flood Tide
Lee’s Lost Dispatch and Other Civil War Controversies
Trading With the Enemy
Co. Aytch: Illustrated and Annotated


9 thoughts on “Figures of Merit

  1. jcburden

    Okay, let’s add the largely-enslaved black population of the pre-War future CSA to the mix. The assertion (which we agree is bogus) then becomes that roughly 28% of the entire population somehow bears the brunt of duties that presumably have been passed along to the ultimate consumer.

    That is evidently a Williams assertion…not mine. – Phil

    This, despite that 1) slaveowners did not, AFAIK, provide slaves large quantities of new imported consumer goods for the slaves’ personal consumption (except perhaps cloth for clothing?)

    House servants had fineries including shoes and clothing and field hands had work tools, implements, and related items. — Phil

    and 2) the remaining loyal state population was also needful of consumer goods. In fact, I’d suspect the loyal population likely consumed imported goods roughly proportionate to their overall numbers. The question in my mind is, what good would it have done evil Northern manufacturers

    Please read comment rules about repeated sarcasm. — Phil

    if they sought high tariffs to discourage importation of competing goods, then surrendered the Southern markets to those same importers without competition from their own non-dutiable domestic goods?

    I don’t understand the meaning of your last sentence.

    It is, however, notable that you ignore the fact that postbellum tariffs were much higher than antebellum tariffs.The shift demonstrates what the Yankees wanted to do once they got control of the federal government. It is, in fact, what they did do, with disastrous results for the South. Thus, Southerners were correct to anticipate adverse consequences to their economy once Yankees took control of the federal government and imposed high tariffs. Southerners, therefore, had good reason to want to avoid such consequences by becoming a separate country. — Phil

    1. jcburden

      “The question in my mind is, what good would it have done…Northern manufacturers…if they sought high tariffs to discourage importation of competing goods, then surrendered the Southern markets to those same importers without competition from their own non-dutiable domestic goods?

      –I don’t understand the meaning of your last sentence.”

      In other words, why would Northern business/industrial interests back a protective tariff, then sit back and allow imported goods to constitute a disproportionate percentage of Southern consumables?

      They wouldn’t. They wanted to keep less costly imported goods out of the South and were willing to fight the Civil War in order to prevent it. — Phil

      Presumably, one aim of the tariff was to protect the Southern market from the competition of dutiable foreign goods (or goods made here using imported raw materials).

      Actually, Northern manufacturers loved to get raw materials imported duty-free so that they could minimize their manufacturing costs. Generally they wanted high tariffs on finished goods but no tariffs on raw materials. Cotton is a good example. The tariff schedule on cotton cloth got higher in lock-step with the amount of value-added in the manufacturing process of the product class, but the South did not need an import duty on unprocessed cotton because the United States was already the World’s low cost producer. Thus, the South’s was an export economy. — Phil

  2. Andy Hall

    Thanks for the links to my blog, Mr. Leigh.

    You’re entirely correct that the chart shows where the tariffs were collected. But please keep in mind also that that chart was done — as stated in my post — in response to a column by Walter E. Williams in which he claimed that “Southern ports paid 75 percent of tariffs in 1859.” That’s clearly not the case.

    I’m not aware of comprehensive data that shows where those tariffed goods eventually ended up in the hands of consumers. Such data would go along way to making the case that Southerners were disproportionately burdened by import tariffs.

    1. jcburden

      Perhaps Dr. Williams meant to say that white Southerners (who comprised about 15% of the 1860 population) consumed 75% of imported goods. After all, bizarre assertions are a tool of the trade for the Ol’ Perfesser.

      1. Phil Leigh Post author

        Over 17% of America’s antebellum population was composed of whites in the eleven states that would form the Confederacy. That is three times the percentage of duties collected there, which is another indication of the chart’s under-representation of how much tariff duty Southerners paid. Additionally, your exclusion of 3.5 million blacks in the future Confederate states implies that they did not consume any imported goods. Nonetheless, I do not believe William’s 75% figure anymore than I do your implied claim that no black southerners consumed imported goods.

        The true Northern intent on tariff matters was revealed in the fifty years after the Civil War when dutiable rates averaged 45%. In contrast, during the four years prior to the Civil War they averaged about 17% and prior to that they were set at 25% in 1846. In short, Southerners correctly anticipated that Northerners would sharply increase tariffs and keep them high indefinitely as long as they controlled the federal government. The result would be—in fact was—ruinous to the South.

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