Tag Archives: Causes of the Civil War

Reconsidering Slavery and the Civil War

(September 4, 2019) Nearly all modern historians agree with Professor James McPherson’s conclusion that the Civil War was caused by Southern objections to the 1860 Republican Party’s resolve to prohibit slavery’s extension into any of the federal territories that had not yet been organized as states. The resolution originated with the Wilmot Proviso fourteen years earlier before the infant GOP had even been formed. In 1846 Pennsylvania Congressman David Wilmot introduced a rider to a $2 million appropriation intended for use in a negotiated settlement to end the Mexican War. The rider stipulated that the money could not be used to purchase land that might be acquired in the treaty if slavery was allowed in such territories. After considerable wrangling, the bill passed without the rider.

Contrary to first impressions, the Proviso had little to do with sympathy for black slaves. Its purpose was to keep blacks out of the new territories so that the lands might be reserved for free whites. As Wilmot put it, “The negro race already occupy enough of this fair continent . . . I would preserve for free white labor a fair country . . . where the sons of toil, of my own race and color, can live without the disgrace which association with negro slavery brings upon free labor.”

The same attitude prevailed during the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln readily admitted that his September 1862 Emancipation Proclamation was a necessity of war. Major General George McClellan, who then commanded the North’s biggest army and would become Lincoln’s opponent in the 1864 presidential elections, believed it was a deliberate attempt to incite Southern slave rebellions. Lincoln was himself aware that such uprisings might result. Nine days before he issued the Proclamation he told a group of visiting Chicago abolitionists that he “would urge [no] objections of a moral nature” to abolitionism even “in view of possible consequences of insurrection and massacre at the South.”

Northerners can deflect guilt for post-war Southern poverty by pretending they went to war to free the slaves.

During the first secession wave when seven states left in December 1860 and the first months of 1861, at least six Northern state legislatures adopted resolutions opposing secession. None mentioned a desire to end slavery. Instead, all indicated they were prepared to fight in order to “preserve the Union.” Similarly, on his first day in office President Lincoln stated that he only wanted to bar the extension of slavery into the territories, not to end it. “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” Less than five months later the U. S. Congress almost unanimously adopted a joint resolution stating that their only war aim was to reunify the country thereby signaling they had no intent to free slaves.

When large numbers of freedmen began drifting into Union lines after the victorious armies occupied Southern lands, Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas tried to relocate some to Northern free states. His efforts were promptly rejected by those states. In spring 1863 he wrote: “It will not do to send [black refugees] . . . into the free states, for the prejudices of the people of those states are against such a measure and some . . . have enacted laws against the reception of free negroes.” Even Massachusetts, the cradle of abolitionism, refused to accept black refugees. Famous abolitionist, Horace Greeley, advocated that occupied Southern lands be given to freedmen in order to avoid black migration into the North. After the war ended Massachusetts Congressman George Boutwell proposed that South Carolina and Florida be reserved exclusively for blacks in order to keep them far South of the Mason-Dixon line.

Admittedly, at least some of the original seven cotton states seceded due to objections over the Republican-proposed limitation on slaveholder rights. It is, however, a mistake to equate the reasons for secession with the reasons for war. Since there was no danger that the South would invade the North, Northerners could have let the initial seven cotton states peacefully leave.

In point of fact, many Northern leaders were prepared to do just that. Among them was Mr. Greeley, then editor of The New York Tribune, which was America’s largest newspaper. 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 and 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.”

War began only after Lincoln called for 75,000 military volunteers to coerce the seven cotton states back into the Union. The call caused the four upper South states—Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Arkansas—with half of the eleven-state Confederacy’s white population to join the other seven. Since the four had previously been Union-loyal it cannot be said that they seceded because of slavery.

In reality, the North chose to fight in order to avoid the anticipated economic consequences of disunion. A truncated Union separated from its Southern states would likely face two significant economic problems.

First, it could not hope to maintain a favorable balance of payments. The South accounted for about 70% of America’s exports on the eve of the Civil War. Thus, without the South’s export economy, America could become a perpetual debtor nation forever at the mercy of its stronger trading partners that would deplete her gold supply in order to settle the persistent trade imbalances.

Second, since the Confederate constitution outlawed protective tariffs, her lower tariffs would confront the remaining states of the Union with two consequences. One would be a shrinkage in tariff revenues. Articles imported into the Confederacy would divert the applicable import duties from the North to the South. Since tariffs represented ninety percent of all Federal taxes such a drop was significant. 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. Consequently, the market for Northern manufactured goods in the South might nearly vanish.

Notwithstanding the above facts, the myth persists that the North fought to end slavery and the South fought to perpetuate it. Gore Vidal’s 1984 novel, Lincoln, may offer one explanation for the myth’s endurance. Instead of a martyr whose life is sacrificed for a noble cause, according to Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh, Vidal’s Lincoln “seems to will his own murder as a guilt ridden inadequate atonement for all the blood spilled.” In an interview, Vidal himself said, “I always thought Lincoln was wrong. I always thought the South had every right to go. If Lincoln had a high moral purpose—which has now been invented for him, posthumously, as the abolition of slavery—I’d say, well it’s illegal but it’s morally worthy.” At the time, however, his motivations were to preserve the Union and centralize power in Washington. “Why,” Vidal adds,  “kill 600,000 young men for a notion of the Union, which nobody had thought much of before then?”

If Vidal’s insight is valid, the myth abides because it provides the victors a noble excuse for starting a war of conquest and following it with a century of economic exploitation. A hundred years after the war eight of the ten states with the lowest per capita income were former Confederate states. Southern poverty was obvious to any Northerner traveling through the region. He could absolve his ancestors of responsibility by blaming the victims, which he might label variously as hillbillies, crackers, rednecks, bubbas, hayseeds, bigots and hicks. Most academic historians increasingly came under the same influence and falsely justified his viewpoint. After the 1960s Civil Rights movement he moved beyond merely blaming the South and began demonizing it. Southerners became deplorables, with no redeeming virtues. Northern historians moved into Southern colleges where they eradicated nearly all dissenting voices.

Nonetheless, during an era when slaves were neither American voters nor citizens, the South was fighting for self government, which most free men regard as an inalienable right. Even Lincoln said so in an 1848 congressional address, “Any people anywhere being inclined and having the power have the right to rise up and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better.” Yet the North crushed the Southern movement more ruthlessly than the Soviet Union did the one in Hungary in 1956.

In 1962 historian Edmund Wilson concluded that, Lincoln, Bismarck, and Lenin were the great “centralizers” of government. “Each established strong central governments over hitherto loosely coordinated peoples . . . and each paid a heavy price. Lincoln was assassinated . . . [Lenin] was shot by a political opponent . . . [and] social revolutionaries” twice attacked Bismarck’s official Emperor. “[A]ll of these acts of violence were gauges of the weight of repression that [Lincoln, Bismarck, and Lenin] had been imposing, or were assumed to be responsible for imposing. . . Each of these men . . . became an uncompromising dictator.”

They, and their successors, neutered distributed self-government as it had been previously known. Among other offenses Lincoln violated the First Amendment by muzzling opposing newspapers and acquiescing when mobs of supporters physically destroyed others. In contrast, Jefferson Davis never took such action despite much opposition in the press. He regarded freedom of speech as sacred. Yet, Davis’ statues are taken down and Lincoln is defied.

Historian Wilson continued:

The action of the Washington government in preventing the South from seceding was not prompted by the motives that have been often assumed. The myth that it was fighting to free the slaves is everywhere . . .  except in the South; and it is true that slavery in the Southern states was an embarrassment to many people in the South as well as the North; but many other people thoroughly approved of it—in the North as well as the South.

Abolitionists like Whittier and Garrison were not in such mortal danger as they would have been in South Carolina, but both were mobbed in New England. . . These fanatics were handled rather gingerly by the anti-South Republicans, and exploitation of the wickedness of the planters became later a form of propaganda like the alleged German atrocities in Belgium at the start of the First World War. . . [Slavery] supplied the militant Union North with the rabble rousing moral issue which is necessary in every modern war to make the conflict appear as a melodrama.

Those who destroyed the South have been loath to admit that a confederated government might succeed. Even today, however, Switzerland is such an example. Switzerland is not only a confederation, it also happens to have one of the World’s highest per capita incomes. The country is composed of 26 Cantons. They are analogous to our states, but more independent. The central government is responsible for foreign policy, customs, the monetary system, the military, and social insurance programs. Legislative power rests with the bicameral Federal Assembly.  Much of the legislation, however, is determined directly by the people who vote several times as year on initiatives and referenda. Voters may also call a referendum to challenge any law passed by the Federal Assembly by obtaining 50,000 signatures within 100 days of passage.

The executive branch is headed by a seven member board. The presidency rotates among the members annually, and each councillor presides over a federal department. Every able-bodied male is drafted into the Swiss army. After active duty they remain a ready militia and keep army-issued weapons in their homes.  Partly because of the militia, Switzerland has a long history of neutrality beyond its borders and a distributed self-government within them.

Without the checks contained in the constitutions of the Swiss federation and the defunct American Confederacy, representative government tends to become centralized under the control of the cultural elite. They’re like magicians who use slavery as a way to deflect attention away from the truth that the Civil War was one of conquest and that an ever-growing centralized government is a threat to freedom and self government.

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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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Civil War Lessons From Today’s Farmers

(July 1, 2019) Anyone with even a casual interest in Trump’s tariff has noticed that farmers are complaining.

Food, beverages and feed are America’s biggest exports. Soybeans and pork are major items sent to China. Since both have been slapped with retaliatory Sino tariffs, American producers are losing the market to other countries such a Brazil. Consequently, President Trump assembled a $16 billion farmer bailout package, to be funded by the tariffs collected for industrial products like steel and aluminum.

Soybean Farmer

Here are the lessons:

  1. Most historians analyzing the tariff as a cause of the Civil War don’t consider the negative affect on the demand for exported farm goods. Instead they only consider the duties as uniformly applied throughout the country. This leads them to reason that the North paid most of the tariffs because it had a greater population.
  2. They fail to consider that protective tariffs on manufactured goods caused the Europeans to buy less farm goods from America. They could not generate the exchange credits needed to buy American agriculture products unless they could sell their manufactured items into our country. High tariffs impeded that.
  3. As the dominant exporter of agricultural products (cotton and tobacco) the demand for Southern produce was disproportionately penalized. Unlike today’s soybean farmers who might be located anywhere from Wisconsin to Mississippi, the antebellum South was the America’s largest export region by a wide margin.
  4. As a result, Southerners were trebely penalized by tariffs on manufactured items. First, they had to pay the tariff on the imported products they bought. Second, they had to pay an artificially higher price for domestic substitutes because those selling prices were inflated by the tariff. Three, they lost income as sales of their farm goods were constrained by the lower demand overseas caused by the American tariffs.
  5. Unlike today’s soybean and pork farmers, the antebellum Southern farmers had no federal bailout. Thus, the government subsidized the Northern manufacturers with tariffs but made no compensation to Southern farmers for their lost sales. This was a big deal. It is why South Carolina nullified the Tariff of Abominations in 1832.
  6. The U. S. Constitution specified that all taxes should be “uniform.” Northerners believed that “uniform” meant only that tariffs on each item should be the same (within its class) regardless of where it was purchased. Southerners had a more liberal interpretation. “Uniform,” they argued, should mean that the economic impact will not discriminate against any state or region. As the Trump tariffs show, the adverse result is focused on agriculture. In antebellum America that constituted regional discrimination because so much of the farm exports came from the South. Even though the economic affect was disproportionately negative on the South, they got nowhere with the argument politically.

In sum, America’s agricultural exports have always been a casualty of protective tariffs on industrial products. While the harmful impact is more spread out geographically today, in antebellum America it was concentrated in the South.

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Good Reforms in Confederate Constitution

(June 28, 2019) All that most academic historians want their students to know about the Confederate Constitution is that it expressly protected slavery: “No . . . law denying the right of property in the Negro shall be passed.”

But the people who wrote it had lived under the U. S. Constitution. They knew the latter’s strengths, which they tried to copy, and its weaknesses, which they tried to eliminate. Mostly they wanted to avoid a concentration of power in the central government by maximizing the rights and responsibilities of the states and limiting those of the confederation’s government. Thus, the 1861 Confederate Constitution is basically a reformed version of the U.S. Constitution, although a more complete analysis is available here.

During the preceding seventy-two years the Confederate founders had watched as the U. S. Federal government became manipulated by crony capitalists who persuaded their representatives to increase the central government powers in order that it may subsidize the capitalists. Northern states wanted the Federal government to fund speculative public works, then known as internal improvements, that the states themselves avoided due the financial risk. Southerners felt that such programs should be funded by private enterprise or the states themselves.

Consequently, the Confederate Constitution outlawed internal improvements except for limited programs involving harbors and rivers that would be repaid by user fees. It also dropped the “general welfare” clause in the U. S. Constitution’s taxing authority, which Northerners increasingly used as an open gate for many types public spending programs. The “general welfare” clause continues to be abused with the result that America’s budget deficits today are out of control. The Confederate constitution authorized taxes for only three purposes:  military defense, government operating expenses, or to repay debts.

Additionally, only the President could normally put bills before the Confederate Congress. This was to prevent representatives from introducing pork-barrel projects. All bills had to state the amount of money required and the title had to identify the object of the spending. This basically eliminated omnibus spending bills. Cost overruns were not allowed. The minority of bills that might originate in Congress would require a two-thirds majority vote of each house to be enacted. If adopted by America today, this single provision would eliminate much of our wasteful spending.

Similarly, Northern states prevailed upon the federal government for high protective tariffs to immunize their manufacturers from overseas competition. Southerners opposed the tariffs for two reasons. First, they had almost no manufacturers. Second, protective tariffs interfered with the ability of Europeans to generate the exchange credits needed to buy Southern farm goods because it reduced the Europeans’ sales of manufactured goods into the American market.

As a result, the Confederate Constitution outlawed protective tariffs. Although ordinary “revenue” tariffs would fund the Confederacy’s operations, no duties could be used to “promote or foster any branch of industry.” Other business subsidies, such as bounties that New England fishermen had been collecting in the U. S. A., were also outlawed.

The Confederate founders were additionally concerned about bureaucratic creep, which could lead to a tyrannical central government in the form of a deep-state of career administrators. Consequently, each state could impeach a Federal (Confederate) official operating exclusively in their state by a two-thirds vote of both houses of the applicable state’s legislature. Such officials would be tried by the C. S. A. Senate, with a two-thirds vote required for conviction.

Another safeguard against a too-powerful central government was a stipulation that constitutional amendments could only originate with the states. Although they could not be introduced in Congress any three states could form a convention to propose new amendments.

Finally, each President was limited to a single six-year term. As another measure to minimize pork-barrel spending, he was granted line item veto powers.

Contrary to the arguments of most modern historians that the Civil War was “all about” slavery, the constitutional provisions noted above show that the Confederate founders had big concerns about the powers of the central government. They also showed that states’ rights were one way Southerners intended to limit such powers. Thus, historians now claiming that Southerners only mentioned states’ rights as a war issue after the the South already lost the War are wrong. Such rights had been a major consideration from the beginning.

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Comparing Words and Deeds

(April 24, 2019) Critics of the Confederacy often point to the Declaration of Causes for secession among selected Rebel states as evidence that the Civil War was “all about” slavery. The Civil War Trust, for example, notes that four of the original seven Confederate states cited slavery as a prime reason for secession.* Critics often attack anyone who disputes the slavery-was-everything interpretation with remarks such as, “The Declaration of Causes plainly say that the primary concern among contemporary Southern leaders was the preservation of slavery. You’re a racist bigot to deny it.”

Aside from the routine ad hominem, that argument has two flaws.

First, secession need not have led to war. Northerners could have let the Southern states depart peaceably. Many Yankee leaders advocated, or were satisfied with, a peaceable separation. Among them were Horace Greeley, Lincoln’s future War Secretary Edwin Stanton and future President Rutherford B. Hayes, as well as many others. There was no danger that the South would start a war by invading the North. The war came only after Northerners resolved to coerce the seven cotton states back into the Union. That solitary decision caused Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Arkansas to join the seven-state Confederacy and double the number of whites in the new nation. All four had remained Union-loyal during the secession crisis.

Second, the slavery-was-everything argument ignores the fact that people reveal their motives more by their actions than their words. We all learned that in kindergarten, or earlier. The sectional differences over tariffs provide an example of true North-vs.-South motivation.

Prior to the Civil War in 1860 the average tariff on dutiable items was 19%. During the war, and for forty-five years thereafter, the figure was 45%. Thus, once Northerners gained control of the federal government they increased dutiable item tariffs by 130% and kept them there for half a century.

Therefore, high protective tariffs were undeniably a primary war aim for the North. While modern historians will dispute the point, their arguments ignore the compelling and protracted post-war evidence. I have read a number of such essays and have yet to find a solitary one that even hints that the author was aware that the winning side imposed high protective tariffs long after the war was over.

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*The CWT also cites Virginia’s single and oblique reference to slavery in its Declaration of Causes, but ignores the fact that Virginia remained Union-loyal during the secession crises. She only decided to join the Confederacy after Lincoln resolved to militarily coerce the original seven cotton states back into the Union.

Causes of the Civil War

(July 18, 2018) In a PBS interview seven years ago historian and Harvard University president Drew Gilpin Faust identified slavery as the cause of the Civil War. “Historians are pretty united on the cause of the Civil War being slavery,” she said and elaborated by adding, . . . “when the various states announced their plans for secession, they uniformly said that the main motivating factor was to defend slavery.”

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But she commits two errors. First, only five of the first seven states to secede cited slavery in their secession ordinances and declarations of causes. Additionally, the four upper-South states of Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas remained Union-loyal until President Lincoln called for 75,000 troops to coerce the seven Gulf states back into the Union—a compulsion that the upper-South states considered to be unconstitutional. Once they joined, however, they doubled the Confederacy’s white population and her territory east of the Mississippi River. Second, but foremost, Faust falsely equates the reasons the Northern states chose to fight a war with the reasons Southern states seceded.

She fails to consider that Northerners could have let the cotton states leave in peace, thereby avoiding a Civil War altogether. The original seven-state Confederacy was so weak that many believed her component states might end up humbly asking to be readmitted to the Federal Union. According to historian David Potter: “No one was much impressed with the Gulf Coast Confederacy. No one was convinced that it would be economically or politically viable.”[1]

Moreover, many Northern leaders were prepared to “Let the erring sisters go in peace.” Among them was abolitionist Horace Greeley, then editor of The New York Tribune, which was America’s largest newspaper. 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.”[2] 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.”

Faust made a second error by ignoring the reasons that Northerners chose to fight and instead concentrated only on the reasons the South seceded. She could have, for example, examined resolutions passed by at least six Northern state legislatures in response to the first wave of seceding states. All six suggested that they were prepared to fight a war in order to “preserve the Union.”[3]

The elephant in the Civil War history classroom

It is impossible to conclude that the resolutions of any of the six states even hint of a Northern holy war to free Southern slaves. Moreover, the vague abstractions for wanting to preserve the Union, such as the “freedom,” “prosperity,” and “happiness” presumably enabled by the Federal Union, suggest that they may be nothing more than obfuscations designed to camouflage the true goal of aborting the economic consequences of disunion. Even historian Gary Gallagher who accepts the platitudes at face value, concedes that the average Northerner was preoccupied “then, as now, [by] economic concerns.”[4] A truncated Union separated from its Southern states would likely face two significant economic problems.

First, it could not hope to maintain a favorable balance of payments. The South accounted for about 70% of America’s exports on the eve of the Civil War. Thus, without the South’s export economy, America would become a perpetual debtor nation forever at the mercy of its stronger trading partners that would deplete her gold supply in order to settle the persistent trade imbalances.

Second, since the Confederate constitution outlawed protective tariffs, her lower 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.

Consider the iron-producing state of Pennsylvania, which was among the most vigorous advocates 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 proclaimed that they did not want to interfere with the Southern slavery, they undeniably wanted generous tariff protection.[5]

The false equivalency between the reasons that the South seceded and the reasons that the North chose to fight a war rather than let the seven cotton states depart peaceably is the ignored elephant in the history classroom.

*       *       *

[1] David Potter, The Impeding Crisis (New York: Harper Colophon, 1976), 505
[2] Hayes miscounted. At the end of January 1861 there were only nineteen free states.
[3] New York, Maine, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Minnesota
[4] Gary Gallagher, The Union War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011), 42, 44
[5] Jack Beatty, Age of Betrayal (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2007), 67; Samuel Bostaph, Andrew Carnegie: An Economic Biography (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017), 137; Ludwell Johnson, Division and Reunion (New York: Wiley, 1978), 64