It’s About the Money

(May 25, 2020) A recent thread in an online discussion group about the causes of the Civil War continues to be dominated by those who equate the causes of secession with the causes of the war. But they are not the same because the North could have permitted the seven cotton states to leave in peace. Instead Northerners chose to start a Civil War in order to coerce the seven back into the Union. The vast majority in the discussion group fail to question why the North chose to fight beyond replying that it was to “preserve the Union.” They are thunderstruck when challenged with the thought that “preserve the Union” was merely a euphemism for “avoiding the consequences of disunion.”

“Oh yeah. What are those consequences?” they ask dismissively.

“Economic hardship,” I reply.

“Like what?” they say and leave their jaw dropped until I reply.

“Loss of tariff revenue and access to Southern markets for monopolistic domestic manufacturers of the North who have been protected by deterrence tariffs.”

“Oh, that’s BS. My college professor told me that the tariff argument has been completely discredited,” they reply after a sigh and frown.

“Not discredited at all,” I say. “Consider that the tariff on dutiable items increased from 19% before the war to an average of 45% for over fifty years thereafter. In fact rates did not drop until Democrat Woodrow Wilson, who lived in the South as a boy, became President.”

With a backhanded wave they respond, “Oh, that’s ridiculous. Nothing that happened after the war can explain what the war was about!”

“If the war was fought to preserve the Union, surely you admit that it was preserved by readmission of the former Confederate states,” I reply. “That was after the war, as was the 13th Amendment freeing the slaves.”

This time they raise both hands as if to push the thought away before saying, “That’s different because my professor never talked about it because . . . well he went to Yale and studied under Dr. Blight . . .  and . . . well, that’s just different, see?”

It’s useless to detail Dr. Blight’s biases so I provide examples of secession-era newspapers documenting that concerns over the economic consequences of disunion undeniably worried Northerners.

1. Chicago Daily Times: December 10,1860

Let us . . . look dissolution [disunion] in the face: At one single blow our foreign commerce must be reduced to less than one-half what it now is. Our coastwise trade [presently an American monopoly by law] would pass into other hands. One-half of our shipping would lie idle at our wharves. We should lose our trade with the South, with all of its immense profits.

Our manufactories would be in utter ruins. Let the South adopt the free-trade system, or that of a tariff for revenue [instead of deterrance], and these results would alike follow. If protection be wholly withdrawn from our labor, it could not compete . . . with the labor of Europe. We should be driven from the market, and millions of our people would be compelled to go out of employment.


2. Philadelphia Press: January 15, 1861

If those [tariff] laws cannot be enforced, the Union is clearly gone; if they can, it is safe.


3. (Cleveland) Daily National Democrat: November 20, 1860

Anticipating a secession, it is said, the English Cabinet have . . . a Treaty which will allow the South to send their cotton free of duty to England, while English woolen and English cotton manufactured goods would be received free of duty into the cotton States. England would thus achieve the great object of her ambition, to have a monopoly of the raw cotton, and thus to strike a deadly blow at her great rival, the United States, and the result would be, that the cotton factories of the North—their best market cut off—the price of the raw cotton advanced, would be crippled if not entirely used up, and England have the monopoly of that great trade.


4. New York Evening Post: March 2, 1861

That either the revenue from duties must be collected in the ports of the rebel states, or the ports must be closed to importations from abroad, is generally admitted. If neither of these things be done, our revenue laws are substantially repealed; the sources which supply our treasury will be dried up; we shall have no money to carry on the government; the nation will become bankrupt before the next crop of corn is ripe.


5. St. Louis Missouri Republican quoted in New York Evening Post: March 27, 1861

Every day our importers of foreign merchandise are receiving, by way of New Orleans, very considerable quantities of goods duty free . . . If this thing is to become permanent there will be an entire revolution in the course of trade and New York will suffer terribly.


6. New York Evening Post: March 12, 1861

. . . Allow railroad iron to be entered at Savannah with a low duty of ten percent . . . and not an ounce would be imported at New York. . . The whole country would be given up to an immense system of smuggling . . .

7. New York Daily Tribune correspondent J. S. Pike: January 11, 1861

Key West, the Tortugas, and Pensacola belong more . . . to the great maritime and commercial interests of the Free States . . . Those posts are in themselves alone of sufficient importantance to create and justify a war, even a long and bloody war, should their possession be contested.


8. Philadelphia Press: December 27, 1860

If South Carolina is permitted to establish a free port with impunity, and to invite to her harbor all ships of foreign nations [instead of only US flag carriers for coastal trade as required by Federal law] would not disaster fall upon our great northern interests?


9. New York Times: March 29, 1861

. . . The result of this [passive] policy cannot be doubtful. . . We shall not only cease to see marble palaces rising along Broadway; but reduced from a national to merely a provincial Metropolis, our shipping will rot at the wharves and grass grow in our streets.


10. Chicago Daily Tribune: January 19, 1861

There is yet a single hope for freedom in this crisis, but that hope does not rest on the North. If the South Carolinians would only make a determined assault upon Fort Sumpter, level its walls to the sea, and slaughter its gallant commander and all his men—then perhaps the North would arise in vindication of the Constitution and laws, and teach the South that this country and government were not made wholly for slaveholders. That is now almost our only hope.


11. Boston Transcript, March 18, 1861 (This one concludes that slavery was not the cause of secession)

Alleged grievances in regard to slavery were originally the causes for the separation of the cotton States, but the mask has been thrown off, and it is apparent that the people of the seceding States are now for commercial independence. . . The merchants of New Orleans, Charleston, and Savannah are possessed with the idea that New York, Boston and Philadelphia may be shorn . . . of their mercantile greatness by a revenue system verging upon free trade. If the Southern Confederation is allowed to carry out a policy by which only a nominal duty is laid upon imports, no doubt the businesses of the chief Northern cities will be seriously injured.

The difference is so great between the tariff of the Union and that of the Confederacy that the entire Northwest must find it to their advantage to purchase imported good at New Orleans rather than New York. In addition Northern manufacturers will suffer from the increased importations resulting from low duties. . .



12. The Boston Herald, November 12, 1860

[Should the South secede] she will immediately form commercial alliances with European countries [that] . . . will help English manufacturing at the expense of New England. The first move the South would make would be to impose a heavy tax upon the manufacturers of the North, and a export tax on the cotton used by Northern manufacturers. In this way she would seek to cripple the North. The carrying trade, which is now done by American vessels, would be transferred to British ships.


13. The following is excerpted out of a letter from New York Times publisher Henry Raymond to William Yancey of Alabama. (Dec. 30, 1860)

If the South secedes the remaining truncated Union would “be surrendering to a foreign and hostile power more than half of the Atlantic seaboard—the whole Gulf—the mouth of the Mississippi . . . and its drainage of the commerce from the mighty West . . . all chance of further accessions from Mexico, Central America or the West India islands and all prospect of extending our growth . . . in the only direction in which such extension will ever be possible. . .”

“Nine-tenths of our people in the North and Northwest would wage a war longer than the War of Independence before they will assent to any such surrender . . . There is no nation in the world so ambitious for growth and power—so thoroughly pervaded with the spirit of conquest and so filled with dreams of enlarged dominions, as ours.”

In sum, as H. L. Mencken put it, “Whenever somebody says, ‘It’s not about the money’, it’s about the money.”


To support this blog, buy my books at my Amazon Author Page

The Confederacy at Flood Tide by Philip Leigh
Trading With the Enemy by Philip Leigh
Lee’s Lost Dispatch & Other Civil War Controversies by Philip Leigh
Southern Reconstruction by Philip Leigh
U. S. Grant’s Failed Presidency by Philip Leigh
The Devil’s Town: Hot Springs During the Gangster Era by Philip Leigh

2 thoughts on “It’s About the Money

  1. Christopher Coleman

    While I would not entirely discount Nationalism as a reason for Lincoln’s commitment to preserving the Union, mainstream historians seem to continually divorce slavery from economics.

    However, I don’t think the Tariff issue can be separated from Slavery neatly, because the use of slave labor was fundamental to the commercial production of cotton and as your article notes, the whole tariff issue for North, South AND Great Britain was cotton–THE raw material for textile mills and in the first half of the nineteenth century, and thus closely tied to the growth of Capitalism and the Industrial Revolution.

    While the cotton trade came back after the war, as you note, the US put sky-high tariffs in place and guess what: that’s when the British started taking over countries like Egypt, where quality cotton could be grown more cheaply than purchasing it from the US. So yes, tariffs were a cause, but all these factors were interacting: Tariffs + King Cotton + Slavery = Capitalism/Industrialization.

    1. Phil Leigh Post author

      Actually, the American South remained the World’s low cost producer of cotton well into the 20th century. Northerners ended slavery but kept American cotton cheap by impoverishing all postbellum Southerners, black and white. From the end of the Civil War to the end of the Great Depression, Southern cotton farmers lived under conditions comparable to those of 19th century Russian serfs.


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