Provided below is Chapter Three of my twelve-chapter book: Lee’s Lost Dispatch and Other Civil War Controversies. Each chapter is devoted to a controversial Civil War topic that may well have been more consequential than generally supposed. The actual book is abundantly footnoted, but the footnotes have been excluded from this sample version.
Preempting the Civil War
The fateful chain reaction of cotton state secessions that preceded the Civil War might have been aborted in January 1861. Preemption may have been accomplished in a manner comparable to the way President Andrew Jackson avoided a similar rebellion against federal authority twenty-eight years earlier during the South Carolina tariff nullification crisis.
Along with most Southerners, South Carolina had long opposed protective tariffs. Although the Constitution authorized tariffs for revenue, as an exporting region the South felt that tariffs designed chiefly to protect domestic manufacturers were unconstitutional because they favored one section of the country over another. Tariffs became increasingly protective from 1816 through 1828. In January 1833, South Carolina “nullified” the most recent tariffs, prohibiting federal officials from collecting duties within its borders starting February 1, 1833. A successful nullification precedent raised the specter of regional secession because Southern congressmen voted 64–4 against the 1828 tariff. Despite habitual sympathy for states’ rights, President Jackson sought congressional authority to compel tariff compliance militarily. Through a combination of a show of force and support for a compromise tariff, Jackson brought the Palmetto State back into line, forestalling additional movement by the other states toward nullification or secession.
A comparatively obscure incident in early January 1861 might have provided a similar opportunity to halt the Civil War before it started. Contrary to popular belief, the first shots of the Civil War were not those forcing the federal garrison at Fort Sumter to surrender on April 13, 1861. While conscientious Civil War students realize that Charleston, South Carolina, witnessed cannon fire three months earlier, many may not appreciate that the January 9, 1861, episode was potentially far more consequential than generally supposed. Continue reading