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.
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