Why Pennsylvania Chose Civil War

(July 13, 1861) As noted in yesterday’s post, modern historians typically point  to the formal resolutions of selected Southern states such as South Carolina and Mississippi as “proof” that slavery was the Civil War’s dominant cause. But the statements were explanations for secession, not war. The careful student will investigate whether it’s proper to equate the reasons the South seceded with the reasons the Northern states chose to militarily coerce them back into the Union. It is the presumption of equivalency that leads to the currently popular notion that the North fought to end slavery and the South to preserve it.

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However, Northern acceptance of peaceful separation could have avoided war.  There was, after all, little danger that Southern states would militarily invade the North. In fact, a number of prominent Republicans concluded that the South should be allowed to leave peaceably and remain a familiar, but independent, neighbor.*

To understand why the outcome of the secession crises was Civil War instead of peaceable separation, students should consider Northern reaction to disunion in addition to Southern reasons for secession. Just as some Southern states issued formal explanations for secession, a number of Northern states released official reactions to Southern secession. This post evaluates the six resolutions jointly approved by Pennsylvania’s legislature on January 24, 1861. Although five Southern states had seceded by that date,  South Carolina’s “declaration of . . . causes” the previous month prompted Pennsylvania’s reaction.

Unlike Minnesota’s resolutions examined yesterday, Pennsylvania’s specifically address slavery but none suggest that the Keystone State wanted to free Southern slaves. To the contrary, the second resolution affirmed “the Constitutional rights of the people of the slaveholding states, to the uninterrupted enjoyment of their own domestic institutions,” meaning slavery.

The first and third resolutions assert the illegality of secession. In a allusion to South Carolina’s use of artillery to deter a supply ship headed for Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor, the fifth one condemns “warlike demonstrations” against federal authority. It is the fourth resolution that threatens war by asserting federal authority to coerce seceding states back into the Union and Pennsylvania’s pledge to “support such measures” as “may be required” to do so. The sixth merely states that copies of Pennsylvania’s resolutions will be distributed to political leaders outside the state.

Thus, like Minnesota, Pennsylvania’s major goal was to preserve the Union, not to free the slaves. Although the resolutions don’t explain why the state desired to keep the Union intact, it’s likely that they wanted to avoid the economic consequences of disunion—just as did Minnesota and other Northern states. As President-elect Lincoln well knew, Pennsylvania’s iron producers depended upon high protective tariffs. At the Republican convention the previous May, his operatives incorporated a protective tariff plank in the Party’s platform in order to win the state’s delegates, which were considered necessary to getting Lincoln the presidential nomination.**

Due to their focus on slavery, many of today’s historians minimize the adverse consequences of disunion for tariff-protected industries. If the Confederacy were to survive as a separate country its import tariffs would certainly have been much lower than those of the federal union. President Jefferson Davis announced in his inaugural address, “Our policy is peace, and the freest trade our necessities will permit. It is . . . [in] our interest, [and those of our trading partners] that there should be the fewest practicable restrictions upon interchange of commodities.”

Low Confederate tariffs would confront the remaining states of the abridged Union with two consequences. First, since ninety percent of federal taxes came from tariffs, the government’s revenue loss would be sizable. Articles imported into the Confederacy from Europe would divert tariff revenue from the North to the South. Second, and even more importantly, a low Confederate tariff would induce Southerners to buy manufactured goods from Europe as opposed to the Northern states where prices were inflated by protective tariffs.

In January 1861 The Philadelphia Press editorialized, “It is the enforcement of the revenue laws [tariffs], not the coercion of [South Carolina] that is the question of the hour. If those laws cannot be enforced, the Union is clearly gone.” In When in the Course of Human Events author Charles Adams reasons:

If trade were to shift to the Southern ports because of a free trade zone, or extremely low duties relative to the North, then [the] great cities [of the Northeast] would go into decline and suffer economic disaster. The image painted by these editorials [from newspapers of Northeastern cities] is one of massive unemployment, the closing of factories and businesses, followed by unrest, riots, and possibly revolution. The inland cities of the North would also go into decline, like Pittsburgh, where duty-free British steel and iron products would cripple the American steel industry.

Increasingly influenced by its growing iron and steel industries, Pennsylvania was perhaps the most vigorous supporter of protective tariffs. As the railroad industry boomed for decades after construction started on the transcontinental railroad during the Civil War, tariffs on imported steel rails sometimes approached 100%. Thus, while Pennsylvanians did not want to interfere with the “domestic institutions of the Southern states, they undeniably wanted liberal tariff protection for the Keystone State.***


*Among such leaders was abolitionist Horace Greeley who was the editor of The New York Tribune, then one of America’s two most influential newspapers. Greeley wrote, “We have repeatedly said . . . that if the slave states choose to form an independent nation, they have the right to do so.” President James Buchanan added that many Republicans shared Greeley’s opinion when he wrote: “Leading Republicans everywhere scornfully exclaimed ‘Let them go;’ ‘We can do better without them;’ ‘Let the Union slide,’ and other language of the same import.” Ohio lawyer and future Republican President Rutherford Hayes was satisfied to let the free states remain alone as his January 4, 1861 diary entry reveals: “The [twenty] free states alone . . . will make a glorious nation . . . scarcely inferior in real power to the thirty-three states we had on the first of November.” Similarly, President Lincoln’s future War Secretary, Edwin Stanton, said, “Oh, I would let the South go; they will be clamoring to get back in three years.”

** David Donald, Lincoln (London:  Jonathan Cape, 1995), 246; David Potter, The Impeding Crisis (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), 423-24

*** Jack Beatty, Age of Betrayal (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2007), 67; Samuel Bostaph, Andrew Carnegie: An Economic Biography (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017), 137




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