A New Look at the "Civil War"
by Carl Pearlston
While barge traveling down the Mississippi this Spring, we stopped at Vicksburg to tour the historic Civil War (or as it is variously termed in the South, the War Between the States, the War for Southern Independence, or the War of Northern Aggression) battlefield marking the city's siege and surrender, which gave the Union final control over the river and divided the Confederacy. Like so many, I've always been fascinated and puzzled by this tragic war in which some 630,000 Union and Confederate soldiers lost their lives. I had always learned and believed that the South's "peculiar institution" of slavery was the cause of that conflict, but in discussions with the local tour guide, he opined that the real cause of the war was Union tariff policy. This was a novel idea which piqued my curiosity. Fortuitously, a day or two later in the museum at Natchez, I found a book entitled War for What, by Francis Springer, which purported to give "the real cause of the war between the states."
Springer points out, amid a good deal of apologia for slavery, that in 1860, the 15 Southern states had 8 million whites and 4 ½ million black slaves, compared to 19 million whites and ¼ million blacks in the North's 19 states. The vast areas of undeveloped western territory were rapidly being settled by people whose economic interests were not with the South. It found itself continually outvoted in both the Congress and Senate, especially on commercial regulations, with the prospect of an increasing majority against it. The nub of the problem was that the North wanted high tariffs on imported goods to protect its own manufactured products, while the South wanted low tariffs on imports and exports since it exported cotton and tobacco to Europe and imported manufactured goods in exchange. High tariffs in effect depressed the price for the South's agricultural exports; the South paid high prices for what it bought and got low prices for what it sold because of the federal tariff policy which the South was powerless to change. Southerners viewed themselves as being dominated by the mercantile interests of the North who profited from these high tariffs.
At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Virginia had proposed a requirement for a 2/3 majority to enact laws regulating commerce and levying tariffs, which were the chief revenue of the federal government. George Mason of Virginia stated "The effect of a provision to pass commercial laws by a simple majority would be to deliver the south bound hand and foot to the eastern states". Virginia withdrew its amendment at the Convention in the interest of securing adoption of the Constitution, but ratification was with the proviso that it could be rescinded whenever the powers granted to the Union were used to oppress, and Virginia could then withdraw from the Union. True to George Mason's prediction, the high tariff of 1828 did bring the South to the verge of rebellion, leading Senator John C. Calhoun to unsuccessfully champion the concept of Nullification and the doctrine of the Concurrent Majority in 1833 to ensure that the South could have a veto power over commercial acts passed by a simple majority in Congress and the Senate.
Springer's book had certainly raised a host of questions, when I was informed of a new book entitled When in the Course of Human Events: Arguing the Case for Southern Succession, by Charles Adams, a noted scholar and writer on the history of taxation. It is a fascinating and somewhat disturbing revisionist history, for it posits the Civil War as but a continuation of the tariff controversy from 1828, ignoring the issues of slavery and the admission of new non-slave states from the territories as reasons for the South's secession and the resultant conflict.
Adams takes the skeleton which Springer had sketched and fills out its flesh with statistics, facts, and timely and instructive details from the newspapers of both the US and England. Consider, for example, a quote by author Charles Dickens in a London periodical in December 1861, "Union means so many millions a year lost to the South; secession means the loss of the same millions to the North. The love of money is the root of this as of many other evils....The quarrel between the North and South is, as it stands, solely a fiscal quarrel". As Adams notes, the South paid an undue proportion of federal revenues derived from tariffs, and these were expended by the federal government more in the North than the South: in 1840, the South paid 84% of the tariffs, rising to 87% in 1860. They paid 83% of the $13 million federal fishing bounties paid to New England fishermen, and also paid $35 million to Northern shipping interests which had a monopoly on shipping from Southern ports. The South, in effect, was paying tribute to the North. The address of Texas Congressman Reagan on 15 January 1861 summarizes this discontent: "You are not content with the vast millions of tribute we pay you annually under the operation of our revenue law, our navigation laws, your fishing bounties, and by making your people our manufacturers, our merchants, our shippers. You are not satisfied with the vast tribute we pay you to build up your great cities, your railroads, your canals. You are not satisfied with the millions of tribute we have been paying you on account of the balance of exchange which you hold against us. You are not satisfied that we of the South are almost reduced to the condition of overseers of northern capitalists. You are not satisfied with all this; but you must wage a relentless crusade against our rights and institutions." As the London Times of 7 Nov 1861 stated: "The contest is really for empire on the side of the North and for independence on that of the South....".
If the South did not secede to protect slavery, why was that prominently stated as the principal reason in the secession resolutions of the various Confederate states? Adams claims that slavery was never in danger, pointing out that Lincoln pledged to enforce the fugitive slave law, declared he had no right or intention to interfere with slavery, and supported a new irrevocable constitutional amendment to protect slavery forever. The South's proclamation that slavery was in danger was a political ploy full of political cant to stir up secessionist fever. As the North American Review (Boston October 1862) put it: "Slavery is not the cause of the rebellion ....Slavery is the pretext on which the leaders of the rebellion rely, 'to fire the Southern Heart' and through which the greatest degree of unanimity can be produced....Mr. Calhoun, after finding that the South could not be brought into sufficient unanimity by a clamor about the tariff, selected slavery as the better subject for agitation". An editorial in the Charleston Mercury 2 days before the November 1860 election stated: "The real causes of dissatisfaction in the South with the North, are in the unjust taxation and expenditure of the taxes by the Government of the United States, and in the revolution the North has effected in this government from a confederated republic, to a national sectional despotism." And on 21 January 1861, five days before Louisiana seceded, the New Orleans Daily Crescent editorialized: "They [the South] know that it is their import trade that draws from the people's pockets sixty or seventy millions of dollars per annum, in the shape of duties, to be expended mainly in the North, and in the protection and encouragement of Northern interests....These are the reasons why these people [the North] do not wish the South to secede from the Union."
When South Carolina seceded in December 1860, followed by the other Confederate states, all the powerful moneyed interests in the North were in favor of appeasing the South over slavery in order to preserve the Union. If the South were to be a sovereign nation with low tariffs, it could undermine Northern business and trade. The South believed that it did not need the North, since it could buy the goods it needed from Europe, but the North needed the South as a market for Northern goods.
The Republican platform of 1860 called for higher tariffs; that was implemented by the new Congress in the Morill tariff of March 1861, signed by President Buchanan before Lincoln took the oath of office. It imposed the highest tariffs in US history, with over a 50% duty on iron products and 25% on clothing; rates averaged 47%. The nascent Confederacy followed with a low tariff, essentially creating a free-trade zone in the South. Prior to this "war of the tariffs", most Northern newspapers had called for peace through conciliation, but many now cried for war. The Philadelphia Press on 18 March 1861 demanded a blockade of Southern ports, because, if not, "a series of customs houses will be required on the vast inland border from the Atlantic to West Texas. Worse still, with no protective tariff, European goods will under-price Northern goods in Southern markets. Cotton for Northern mills will be charged an export tax. This will cripple the clothing industries and make British mills prosper. Finally, the great inland waterways, the Mississippi, the Missouri, and the Ohio Rivers, will be subject to Southern tolls."
Earlier, in December 1860, before any secession, the Chicago Daily Times foretold the disaster that Southern free ports would bring to Northern commerce: "In one single blow our foreign commerce must be reduced to less than one-half what it now is. Our coastwise trade 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, and these results would likely follow."
Similarly, the economic editor of the NY Times, who had maintained for months that secession would not injure Northern commerce or prosperity, changed his mind on 22 March 1861: "At once shut down every Southern port, destroy its commerce and bring utter ruin on the Confederate States." On 18 March, the Boston Transcript noted that while the Southern states had claimed to secede over the slavery issue, now "the mask has been thrown off and it is apparent that the people of the principal seceding states are now for commercial independence. They dream that the centres of traffic can be changed from Northern to Southern ports....by a revenue system verging on free trade...."
In late March 1861, over a hundred leading commercial importers in New York, and a similar group in Boston, informed the collector of customs that they would not pay duties on imported goods unless these same duties were collected at Southern ports. This was followed by a threat from New York to withdraw from the Union and establish a free-trade zone. Prior to these events, Lincoln's plan was to evacuate Fort Sumter and not precipitate a war, but he now determined to reinforce it rather than suffer prolonged economic disaster in a losing trade war. That reinforcement effort was met with force by the South, and the dreadful conflict was upon us.
Adams attacks the opposing views of those like Horace Greeley and John Stuart Mill, who held that slavery was the one cause of the secession and the War, as uninformed and based on inadequate research. Mill's article of February 1862, reprinted in Harper's magazine, was a welcome shot in the arm for the Northern cause, giving it an undeserved moral virtue.
As part of this revisionist history, Adams discusses Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus, his order for arrest of Chief Justice Taney after the Justice's opinion holding such suspension to be unconstitutional, the military courts martial which replaced civilian courts and imprisoned some 14,000 dissidents or Copperheads for varied opposition to the war, the closure of some 300 newspapers for opposition to the war, Reconstruction, the rise of the Klan, the planned trial of Jefferson Davis, and the legality of secession. He also provides a critical examination of the Gettysburg Address, of which one reader stated, as quoted on the bookjacket, "Having read this book, I can no longer, with ease, recite the 'Gettysburg Address' or sing the 'Battle Hymn of the Republic'."
What then are we to make of the case Adams sets forth? Was Karl Marx correct when he wrote in 1861: "The war between the North and the South is a tariff war. The war is, further, not for any principle, does not touch the question of slavery, and in fact turns on the Northern lust for sovereignty." While historians may differ, Adams makes a convincing case. But one fact is clear: without its "peculiar institution" of slavery, the South would have never developed its agricultural might so dependent on masses of black laborers. Without slavery and the resultant plantation economy, the cultural divide and fierce sectional rivalry between North and South over tariff policy would not have developed. So, in that sense, slavery was at the root of the entire conflict between the North and the South, though tariffs may well have been the immediate precipitating factor, just as Adams contends. Whatever the cause, it is hard to quarrel with Adams' conclusion that "... the Civil war was not just a great national American tragedy, but even more so, a tragedy for civilization .... In 1861, the world's first great democracy, which was going to show the world what great benefits and virtue this new form of government could bring, failed miserably, tragically, and horribly."
August 25, 2000
Carl Pearlston is an attorney specializing in alternate dispute resolution (arbitrations and mediations) in Southern California, a member of the board of Los Angeles Toward Tradition and ADL, a conservative activist, and an inveterate writer of letters and articles of social and political commentary.