Refuting The Tariff Debunkers

(August 14, 2019) During the past thirty years most modern historians claim that slavery was the overwhelming cause of the Civil War. They increasingly insist that the South’s opposition to protective tariffs was a minimal factor, even though such tariffs were specifically outlawed in the Confederate constitution. One outspoken historian annalist writes:

One of the most egregious of the so-called Lost Cause narratives suggests that it was not slavery, but a protective tariff that sparked the Civil War.

On 2 March 1861, the Morrill Tariff was signed into law by outgoing Democratic President James Buchanan. . . A pernicious lie quickly formed around the tariff’s passage, a lie suggesting that somehow this tariff had caused the US Civil War. By ignoring slavery’s central role in precipitating secession and Civil War, this tariff myth has survived in the United States for more than a century and a half – and needs to be debunked once and for all.

To begin, the annalist fails to note that antebellum tariffs accounted for about ninety percent of federal revenues, even though most of his comrades readily conceded the point. Thus, tariff policy was as important to antebellum Americans as federal tax policy is to us today.

Beyond that, the “debunker” falls into three traps that often entangle his fellow McPherson-Blight-Foner acolytes.

First, he equates the causes of Southern secession with the causes of the Civil War. But they are not the same. The North could have let the initial seven cotton states leave in peace as many leaders such as Horace Greeley, Edwin Stanton and future President Rutherford Hayes were willing to do. There was no danger that the South would invade the North. War came only after the North decided to invade the initial seven cotton states.  Thus, discovering the War’s causes requires an analysis of the North’s reasons for wanting to coerce the South back into the Union instead of the reasons the South seceded. The true goal that prompted Northerners to invade the South was to avoid the economic consequences of disunion.

Since the Confederate constitution outlawed protective tariffs, her lower tariffs would confront the remaining states of the truncated Union with two consequences. First, the federal government would lose much of its tax revenue since articles imported into the Confederacy would divert tariff revenue from the North to the South. Second, and even more importantly, a low Confederate tariff would cause Southerners to buy more manufactured goods from Europe as opposed to the Northern states where prices were inflated by protective tariffs. In 1866, for example, railroad iron sold for $80 a ton in New York but only $32 in England due to American protective tariffs.*

Second, although most modern historians concede that the South traditionally opposed high tariffs, they argue that the rates were too low in 1861 to provoke a War, even if increased. Such arguments typically compare customs duties in 1860 to earlier years but ignore their steep and protracted rise during and after the War. Nonetheless,  the victors’ conduct after Appomattox better reveals their true motives for militarily subjugating the South than does their dishonest rhetoric before the fighting began. 

On the  eve of the Civil War rates on dutiable items averaged 19% but thereafter averaged about 45% until Democrat Woodrow Wilson became President fifty years later in 1913.  Although Wilson reduced rates, Republicans re-uped them after regaining control of the federal government in the 1920s. The GOP did not welcome free trade until after 1945 when the region north of the Ohio and Potomac rivers had virtually no competition anywhere since the economies of Europe and Asia had been wrecked by World War II.

Third, modern historians generally fail to consider the adverse impact of import tariffs on domestic industries that export most of their output. There is no better example than American cotton, which normally exported 75% of its crop annually when the Civil War started. The dominant buyers were Great Britain and France, which typically obtained the exchange credits needed to buy American cotton by selling finished manufacture goods to the United States.  But high protective tariffs made it difficult for European manufactures to sell their goods competitively in the United States, as noted in the railroad iron example above.

That had two repercussions. One was to motivate European cotton buyers to seek new feedstock sources outside the United States. Thus, high domestic import tariffs invited other countries to compete with American cotton. Notable examples included Egypt, India and Brazil.  The other result was to force Europe to buy less American cotton than otherwise thereby shrinking the market for Southern farmers.

The consequences lasted at least seventy years. When commenting upon a multiyear decline in cotton exports in 1935 Assistant Treasury Secretary Oscar Johnston wrote, “The major cause of the decline is the inability of foreign consumers to obtain American exchange [currency.]” Southern farmers needed export markets, but what they got were American tariffs that drove their exports customers to seek other sources.**

In reality, the myth that needs debunking is that the North went to war to end slavery instead of to avoid the economic consequences of disunion.

*Ira Tarbell, The Tariff in our Times, (Norwood, Mass.: Macmillan, 1911), 31
**David L. Cohn, The Life and Times of King Cotton, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1956), 238

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7 thoughts on “Refuting The Tariff Debunkers

  1. Pingback: Secession, Slavery and Tariffs | Civil War Chat

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  3. Pingback: What about The South’s Sugar and Rice Tariffs? | Civil War Chat

  4. Cliff Page

    While I am in accord with the general line of analysis in this article, there is one point that could stand scrutiny and a presentation of detail. The author concludes that England, in particular, would have benefited from secession and a Confederacy, which it could further control by indebtedness and in facts points to Egypt and notes how it it fell into a debt trap with the British which led to the economic advantage of Great Britain.

    Prior to the war 85%-90% of all cotton in England was coming from the South. Eighty-five percent of all slaves were mortgaged to principally New York bankers. Most British-American Cotton trading was brokered by New York bankers and the American merchant fleet was mostly from New England. Slave ships were still being built and run out of New England long after the abolition of the slave trade in England, France and in the US. The link between this indebted cotton traffic was leveraged out of New York, to the point that when South Carolina seceded, the Mayor and City Council of New York voted to secede, and would have, if they had not been checked by a military threat from the Governor of the State.

    Unquestionably, the slave trade and its financing and transport was principally a Yankee endeavor and cotton was the principal driving force of the British industrial revolution and that of New England also. Cotten in 1860 for the first time in human history was clothing half of all humanity with an inexpensive fabric. But in my mind what these facts and the author’s analysis raise is the question, “what if the slaves were principally mortgaged to British financers, rather than NY bankers and money lenders?” What then would have been the role and pressure on England to ally itself with the Confederacy. As it was Great Britain suffered and sat on its hands, but never committed to the Confederacy even though industry, many of its newspapers and their upper house and the aristocracy sided with the Southern cause. Would this have influenced them to join forces with the Confederacy to protect collateralized slave assets and what would this have done to the Federal Government’s decision making and willingness to go to war?

  5. Christopher Coleman

    While I think you make several legitimate points, I disagree that letting the Southern states secede was ever an option for Lincoln. He was above all a nationalist and preserving the Union was his main goal. While morally opposed to slavery, he was not an Abolitionist; moreover, as a lawyer he knew full well that it was perfectly constitutional.

    Several of the Secessionist states did in fact state that defense of slavery was their motive for seceding; but one has to take those statements with a grain of salt; they are not statements of fact, but propaganda to justify secession to the Southern Planter class who were the real power brokers in the region. Lincoln NEVER promised to abolish slavery, merely to prevent its spread to new states in the west.

    Unfortunately, the argument that the Civil War was “caused by slavery” is now becoming more of an ideological dogma than a historical theory; traditionally, competent historians argued that the war BEGAN to preserve the Union but that in the North the war aim changed as the war progressed. While I think tariffs had a lot to do with the motives for war, I am beginning to drift towards Chancellor Bismarck’s view of the cause of the war being of foreign origin. Bismarck was quite sympathetic to the Lincoln administration, since he too was a nationalist (although a German nationalist) and he firmly believed that Britain and France–but mainly Britain–had been working behind the scenes to foment discord–especially the British Bankers. The more I look into it, the more Bismarck’s theory begins to makes sense.

    While the South, especially South Carolina, resented the tariffs, those taxes weren’t coming out of their pockets after all; the group that the tariffs hurt the most were the European textile manufacturers AND the bankers who backed them. Conversely, Britain had the most to gain from Southern Secession; even if they did not to regain the Southern States directly as colonies, they would certainly control them financially through indebtedness to British bankers.

    Similarly, France’s invasion of Mexico was begun on the claim that Mexico had defaulted on the money THEY owed to French financiers; it was also part of a strategy to open an alternate supply & trade route to the Confederacy that would circumvent the Union blockade. The British did not gain control of Egypt until it had become indebted to European bankers; then Britain conveniently got control of both Egypt and a ready supply of Nile Delta COTTON. Southern secession was being planned long before the election of 1860 and while I don’t have the “smoking gun” to prove it, I believe if we look closely enough, we’ll find the fingerprints of European bankers and their governments all over the scene of the crime.

    1. Phil Leigh Post author

      Good points.

      I don’t know what I would have done if I were Lincoln. Letting the seven cotton states leave peaceably would likely have avoided the most costly war in American history. Moreover, many leaders at the time doubted whether the seven were economically viable and believed that they would come crawling back. If that it so, then the USA remains intact.

      As for slavery, letting them go in peace would certainly not quickly end it. But slavery ended peaceably everywhere else and was passing away in the border states and even the northerly parts of the eleven state Confederacy.


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