How Tariffs Contributed to the Civil War

(December 18, 2017) While most modern historians minimize tariffs as a cause of the Civil War they nearly always fail to consider three points.

First, instead of explaining why tariffs fell from 1846 to the eve of the Civil War in 1860, they merely point to the decline as a reason to deny that the South could have been much concerned about future tariff policy. Nonetheless, one reason American rates dropped was because Great Britain had convicingly demonstrated the prosperity that free trade could provide after she abolished nearly all agricultural tariffs in 1846 and thereafter became the World’s mightiest economy. A second reason was that Britain’s action cut the legs out from under domestic protectionists who had eternally pointed to English trade barriers to justify the perpetuation of high American tariffs.

Second, they ignore the ancient wisdom: “To the victor belong the spoils.” Specifically, after winning the war, the Northern states increased America’s tariff on dutiable items from 18% before the war to an average of 45% for almost fifty years after the war. Rates dropped only temporarily during President Wilson’s era and then shot back up when the Republicans regained control of the federal government during the Roaring Twenties. America did not move toward a free trade posture until after World War II when the destroyed economies of Europe and Asia were incapable of offering any competition. Realizing that the fortunes of war had this time left them with a near worldwide monopoly on manufactured goods the Northern states suddenly wanted every country to remove tariffs.

Third, while they eagerly proclaim that the Confederate Constitution specifically legalized slavery, they almost always fail to point out that it also outlawed tariffs designed to protect any domestic industry. The Confederates regarded such tariffs as form of government welfare for politically well connected industries.

James Bovard provides a good two-part analysis of America’s historical tariffs up to the early 1930s. The second part is pertinent to the Civil War era. The first part is available through a link at the top of the second part.


Presently Amazon and Barnes & Noble Online are out-of-stock of my latest book, Southern Reconstruction. Although my publisher has ordered a second printing, the production run will not be completed before Christmas.

Meanwhile, some physical Barnes & Noble stores do have them in stock. Go to this link, and click on the “Want it today? Check Store Availability,” which is in small print to the right of the picture cover. The link will prompt you to enter your zip code and afterward display a list of stores nearby and will also indicate which ones have Southern Reconstruction in stock. Some other independent physical stores may also have the title in stock.

My Amazon Author Page

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