(March 13, 2018) Since President Trump put tariffs back in the news for the first time in decades it is hard to avoid noticing critics who walk the same halls as academic historians that dismiss tariffs as a cause of the Civil War. Purdue’s Professor Wally Tyner, for example, notes that many Indiana manufactures export machinery made from steel to overseas markets and would be hurt by higher steel prices.
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At least Indiana has the consolation of also benefiting because she is presently America’s top steel producing state. Imagine how Dr. Tyner might have objected if he was a Southerner the year before the Civil War. At that time the region accounted for eighty percent of all U. S. exports and produced hardly any goods that benefitted from tariffs. Presumably he would have been pleased that the Confederate constitution outlawed protective tariffs. While it allowed for minimal tariffs to raise revenue it prohibited any designed to protect any domestic industry from overseas competition.
As the table above documents, only about five percent of Southern congressmen voted in favor of higher tariffs for about forty years before the Civil War. Similarly, only eleven percent of the region’s senators voted to hike tariffs during the same period. Thus, tariffs were a persistent and clear sectional difference that should not be minimized as is currently popular among most historians.
The table also illustrates that the western states held the decisive votes on tariffs. Northerners could basically buy western votes by promising to spend the tariff money on public works—then termed “internal improvements”—that would economically benefit the western states. Such expenditures gradually shifted the western region’s axis of commerce from North-South via the Mississippi River to East-West via the Great Lakes, canals and railroads.
Almost forty years before the Civil War, South Carolina Senator William Smith succinctly explained Southern opposition to internal improvements. It was not, as some critics suggest, a desire to retard progress. Instead it was opposition to tariffs for much the same reason that most economists today object: “Destroy the tariff and you will leave no means of carrying on internal improvements; destroy internal improvements and you leave no motive for the tariff.” Due to the linkage to tariffs, the South felt that public works spending should be responsibility of the individual states. It was basically an endorsement of the state’s rights doctrine, which is a connection that most modern historians fail to discern.