(March 9, 2018) Many of today’s historians are frustrated that they cannot eradicate the “myth” that sectional differences over tariffs even secondarily contributed to the Civil War. They like to label tariffs as “The Great Civil War Lie” and insist that slavery was the solitary cause of the war. Yet the strong opposition to President Trump’s recent shift in American tariff policy suggests that they should reevaluate one their key arguments.
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Specifically, they argue that Southerners had no reason to object to tariff hikes on the eve of the Civil War because rates had steadily declined over the previous fifteen years and were the lowest in at least forty years. As the table below shows, the tariff on dutiable items dropped from thirty-five percent in 1846 to nineteen percent in 1861, translating to a decline of about fifty-five percent.
But current loud objections to President Trump’s initiative suggests that tariff opponents will fight against higher rates even if they have been dropping for years. The table above shows that modern-era American tariffs have been declining since the end of World War II. Specifically, rates on dutiable items dropped from thirty-two percent in 1947 to about five percent currently, translating to a decrease of about eighty-five percent.
Although slavery may have been the leading cause of North-South differences, tariff policy was at least a secondary one. For example, even as the Confederate constitution legalized slavery it also outlawed protective tariffs. In order to sharply increase rates, in 1860 the U. S. House of Representatives passed the Morrill Tariff seven months before any Southern state seceded. The Senate passed it less than a year later after the initial seven Southern states formed the Confederacy. (The senators would likely have passed it within a matter of months anyway because new Republican senators had been elected and would soon take their seats.) Every Republican senator voted for the tariff. Thereafter rates on dutiable items averaged forty-five percent until the Republicans lost the White House to Woodrow Wilson in 1913. Wilson cut rates to a low of eighteen percent but Republicans increased them again to a high of almost sixty-percent in 1932.
From the end of the Civil War to the end of World War II, Republicans generally kept tariffs high in order to protect Northern industry from overseas competition at the expense of the South’s export economy. Southerners of the era consistently opposed high tariffs—as did their antebellum ancestors—for two reasons.
First, protective tariffs artificially inflated the cost of Northern manufactured goods as well as competitive goods from overseas. Second, such tariffs made it hard for European industrial economies to earn the American exchange credits needed to buy Southern cotton thereby giving the Europeans an incentive to buy cotton from other countries. Since half of the South’s cotton was purchased in Europe as late as 1940 America’s protective tariffs were a provocation to the South’s biggest customer for a long time.