Tag Archives: Causes of the Civil War

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 80% 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.

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[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

Ohio Replies to Southern Secession

(July 14, 2018) Partly because some of the Southern states formally cited the protection of slavery as the chief reason for seceding, today’s public generally believes that the North entered the Civil War to free the slaves. But the pre-war resolutions of Northern states replying to secession examined so far (Minnesota and Pennsylvania) at Civil War Chat undeniably show that the principal reason they opposed secession was to preserve the Union and not to free the slaves. Today’s post analyzes the January 12, 1861 joint resolutions of the Ohio General Assembly. On that date only four states had yet seceded.

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The Ohio resolutions make only a single indirect, but unmistakable, reference to slavery. Instead of urging an end to slavery, however, they indicate that slavery is a matter for the states to decide individually. Specifically, the fourth resolution states that Ohioans “are inflexibly opposed to intermeddling with the internal affairs and domestic relations of the other states of the Union.” The resolution’s language is similar to that of the fourth plank in Lincoln’s Party platform, although it fails to “denounce the lawless invasion by armed force of the soil of any state or territory, no matter under what pretext . . .” as does (ironically) the Republican plank.

As with the Minnesota and Pennsylvania proclamations the rest of Ohio’s resolutions generally condemn secession and assert the perpetuity of the Union. Although indicating that Ohio was prepared to support a federal invasion of the seceding states  to coerce them back into the Union, they only provide abstract reasons for wanting to preserve the Union. The first resolution, for example, states that the people of Ohio “believing that the preservation of the Unity of [the federal] Government . . . is essential to . . . their safety [and] prosperity . . . are firmly . . .  attached to . . . the Union of the States.” They fail to mention a specific reason for opposing Southern secession such as Minnesota’s objection that it might enable a new nation to disrupt navigation in the lower Mississippi Valley. Nonetheless, Ohio reveals her threat of war in the second resolution that proclaims “the General Government cannot permit the secession of any state.”

Unlike Pennsylvania, Ohio historically opposed protective tariffs, which were generally levied on the imports competitive to the manufactured goods produced in the Northeast. But the state was also a major wool producer. The number of sheep in the Union-loyal states, excluding the Far West, increased from 15 million in 1860 to 35 million in 1867 and twenty percent were in Ohio.  By 1863 the state’s wool growers started laying plans to join with the eastern mills to obtain tariff protection for all components of the industry’s supply chain.  In exchange for supporting tariffs on finished woolen goods Ohioans would get tariffs on unprocessed wool commonly imported from low cost producers in New Zealand and Australia. In fact, wool would become one of the first major domestically produced raw materials to get a protective tariff.* Like Minnesotans, Ohioans may have also wanted to keep the lower Mississippi Valley in the United States in order to avoid potential trade disruptions to the South and export markets through New Orleans.

While it would be helpful if the Ohioans had explained concretely why they felt preservation of the Union was essential to their “prosperity” their resolutions unmistakably show that the state did not go to war to free the slaves.

*Howard K. Beale, “The Tariff and Reconstruction,” American Historical Review V.35, N. 2 (January 1930), 283-86; Howard K. Beale The Critical Year (New York: Frederick Unger Publishing, 1958), 270

 

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.***

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*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