Did tariffs really cause the Civil War? The Morrill Act at 150

Did protective tariffs cause the Civil War? It’s a statement which is popular among enthusiasts of the era. This topic provoked many debates about the causes of the Civil War 150 years ago.

Sociologist James W. Loewen attempted to do as much in a recent article for the Washington Post proclaiming tariffs one of the “5 myths” of the Civil War (this article has since provoked a lively discussion on the history blogosphere with economist – and fellow Austrian School thinker – Thomas DiLorenzo offering a strong rebuttal, and Loewen answering at HNNby digging in and reiterating his original position with little more to answer its indicated faults). The gist of Loewen’s claim appears in the Washington Post:

“[The Tariff Thesis is] flatly wrong. High tariffs had prompted the Nullification Crisis in 1831-33, when, after South Carolina demanded the right to nullify federal laws or secede in protest, President Andrew Jackson threatened force. No state joined the movement, and South Carolina backed down. Tariffs were not an issue in 1860, and Southern states said nothing about them. Why would they? Southerners had written the tariff of 1857, under which the nation was functioning. Its rates were lower than at any point since 1816.”

Several fundamental problems with this assessment immediately jump out. The Nullification topic is long and complicated, enlisting not only the South Carolinians of 1828-33 but Thomas Jefferson before them and will unfortunately have to wait for another discussion, but given the timeliness of tariff issue a little much-needed light appears in order.

The history of the Morrill Tariff is complicated by historiography though, and elsewhere in his articles Loewen identifies a strain of postbellum revisionism toward the tariff thesis within the “Lost Cause” mythos (for more on that see Robert Penn Warren’s centennial essay on the war). By the late 19th century the “cause” of slavery was no longer in vogue for self-evident reasons, and many former slaveowners cast about for other ways through which they could interpret the war, the tariff (which incidentally happened to be at the center of the national political debate at the time) was a popular choice. This is a separate issue of historical discussion though, and the attempt to account for “Lost Cause” historiography should not obscure the actual history of the tariff itself.

The Morrill Tariff

For some years prior to the war the tariff rates actually stabilized around a relatively free trade status quo. This was due to the Walker Tariff of 1846, a lesser known American counterpart to Britain’s repeal of the Corn Laws that same year. Southern and western agricultural interests succeeded in lowering the tariff even further in 1857 with an across-the-board rate reduction, authored by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Robert M.T. Hunter of Virginia.

The main destabilizing event of this status quo occured that same year with the Panic of 1857. Though caused primarily by international price shocks in agricultural food markets, the Panic breathed new life into the beleaguered protectionist movement, which proposed a high tariff as a policy remedy.

The Panic pushed the tariff issue to the forefront of economic policy at the national level, already in a frenzied state over the Dred Scott decision that same year. Along with the territorial question surrounding slavery, tariffs became the primary issue in the hotly contested ballot for Speaker of the House in 1858. In fact, Richard Franklin Bensel has shown that southern steadfastness on the tariff combined with the protectionist inclinations of Republican candidate John Sherman kept the Speaker ballot deadlocked for over two months after the start of the session. Sherman was ultimately dropped from the ballot though in exchange for freshman Rep. William Pennington, and was given chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee as consolation. This brought the tariff issue to the forefront, as Sherman and Vermont Rep. Justin Morrill drafted a new and highly protectionist tariff schedule to replace the 1857 rates. The resultant Morrill Tariff bill was hotly debated for the better part of a year in the House, ultimately passing on strict North-South lines in May 1860 shortly before the summer recess.

Enter Robert M.T. Hunter, author of the 1857 Tariff, who used his position on the Finance committee to table the measure in the Senate. Though little noticed at the time, Hunter’s move (1) effectively guaranteed the tariff would become a campaign issue in the 1860 presidential election and (2) pushed the Senate’s vote on the House bill back into the Winter 1860-61 lame duck session, the same that would become the infamous “Secession Winter” Congress.

While the territorial dispute over slavery dominated the election at the national level, the pending Morrill Tariff bill played an important role in the Republican Party and as a regional issue in the northeast. Abraham Lincoln’s reputation as an old Tariff Whig contributed directly to his nomination at the Republican Convention in Chicago, particularly in securing the delegates previously pledged to protectionist Pennsylvania Sen. Simon Cameron on the second round of balloting. After winning the GOP nomination, Lincoln then dispatched his campaign manager David Davis to Pennsylvania and New Jersey with a set of pro-tariff speeches, designed to shore up the protectionist vote in these two 19th century “swing states.” Morrill and Sherman also joined the campaign effort as Lincoln’s surrogates on the Pennsylvania stump circuit, allowing him to focus on the Midwest where pro-tariff sentiments were not as strong and where they may have even alienated voters. Needless to say, Lincoln’s brilliant yet seldom-acknowledged electoral strategy worked.

The “Secession Winter” Congress began in December amidst looming secessionism and the heated rhetoric of the virulently pro-slavery “fire-eaters” faction. These Southern Democrats opened the session by assailing the incoming president’s platform – not to abolish slavery but the comparatively mild policy of simply keeping it out of the territories. With the slavery powder keg ablaze, the Morrill Tariff bill finally arrived in the Senate at the peak of the “Secession Winter.”

Tariffs and Secessionism?

The connection between the Morrill Tariff and secession has been hotly debated since 1860-61, with several participants in those events actually taking it up themselves. The immediate debate centered around whether the Morrill Tariff stood a chance of passing in either the lame duck session, or the new Senate after Lincoln’s inauguration. We will likely never know that answer for certain, as the resignation of the senators from six secessionist states on January 21, 1861 also removed several likely opposition votes to the tariff bill, and hastened its adoption with relative ease a month later.

We do know for certain, contrary to the claims in Loewen’s article, that the secessionists did contemplate and debate the tariff issue at length. Tariffs almost always came up as a secondary consideration to slavery. The territorial question and fire-eater invective against the abolitionists dominated the secession conventions of the original seven Confederate states, but on more than one ocassion the secessionists made their anger with the impending Morrill Tariff bill clear and explicit. When mentioned it was usually treated as a parallel grievance against the North. On December 25, 1860 the South Carolina secession convention issued an invitation to the legislatures of the other southern states, citing as its rationale “the consolidation of the North to rule the South, by the tariff and slavery issues.”

A more elaborate discussion came from neighboring Georgia, where Alexander Stephens, the future Confederate Vice President who actually opposed his state’s secession efforts despite his later reputation in the Confederate government, argued that the South and other tariff opponents in the western agricultural states would have enough votes to stop the tariff in the Senate if they remained. Robert Toombs, then a Senator and soon to be the Confederate Secretary of State, deemed the House version of the Morrill Tariff “the most atrocious tariff bill that was ever enacted, raising the present duty from twenty to two hundred and fifty percent above the existing rates of duty.” As the convention progressed Toombs continued to rail against the “infamous Morrill bill” and managed to insert an anti-tariff clause into the otherwise virulently pro-slavery Georgia Declaration of Causes for secession.

When weighed against the sum of other evidence, it is difficult to maintain that the tariff was the lone, central issue of the secession crisis by any measure, but at least in the modern era most historians who follow the tariff thesis do not do this. It is therefore something of a strawman to expunge all discussion of the tariff on account of its later connection to “Lost Cause” historiography, and some historians who attack the tariff thesis are guilty of this tendency. Tariff politics at any time in history are notoriously complex, and analysis of them requires both political knowledge and an understanding of their economic effects. There was something afoot with the tariff on the eve of the Civil War, and dismissing it from the discussion without the requisite analysis does as much of a disservice to our knowledge of that event as the resurrected chimera of a long-abandoned “Lost Cause” mythos.

A measured and factually grounded take of the tariff issue reveals its dramatic resurgence between 1858-61 as the national political climate collapsed and pre-war sectional divisions reached a fever pitch. The issue directly contributed to those divisions, particularly as it arrived in the Senate during the “Secession Winter” to add its own havoc to a rapidly growing perfect storm. Though it is not a complete or full explanation of the Civil War itself, it should be viewed as an indicator of the war’s complexity. Simplistic, single-issue explanations of large political and military upheavals seldom work under scrutiny, and the tariff is one such sign of how the economic dimensions of secession overlapped and intertwined with the Civil War’s moral questions about slavery and political questions about sectionalism.

Comments Selected by Canadian Pharmacy

Many thanks to Prof. Loewen & everyone else who has joined us as readers for the spirited discussion. I’ve always found the “secession documents” – the official declarations and proclamations of the 11 confederate states – to be a fascinating if complicated indicator of their mindsets during the winter of 1860-61. Again, slavery clearly predominated their discussion as Mississippi’s document (“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery…”) makes abundantly clear. In addition to the historiographical distortion of the “Lost Cause,” the assessment of other secondary and parallel motives for secession is severely complicated by the state-by-state format in which they departed.

There was no single “Declaration of Independence” for the Confederacy, no unified statement of their positions and motives even though they all addressed a recurring theme of slavery, and particularly its extension to the territories. There is also a substantial sourcing issue because out of 11 seceding states, only 4 of them (South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas) actually issued documents that discussed secession at any length beyond a short, often single-paragraph “secession ordinance” (the evidence seems to indicate that most instead deferred to the “first movers” such as South Carolina).

Of those four states, South Carolina and Georgia had substantive discussions about the tariff issue and identified it as a secondary cause – Georgia via the Toombs paragraph in its “Declaration” and South Carolina in its “Address” to the other states urging them to join the secessionist cause, authored by Robert Barnwell Rhett. Toombs’ point in the Georgia Declaration’s tariff paragraph was not to say that the tariff had been settled in perpetuity in 1846, but rather the same one that he made in his speeches to the Georgia convention a few days prior – that the low-tariff solution from 1846 was now under threat of being repealed by Morrill’s bill (he actually parallels Rhett fairly closely on this point, interpreting the addition of the tariff clause to the 1860 Republican Party platform as an emerging anti-slavery/protectionist political alliance).

At that point the tariff issue becomes more difficult to follow, as the secession debate widened to include 7 more states (in addition to abortive discussions in Missouri and Kentucky, which ultimately decided against joining the Confederacy). While slavery ran throughout the debate and none of the 7 issued “Declarations” to parallel the 4 who did, it is not difficult to find evidence that the Morrill bill continued to inflame the course of events. Sens. Thomas L. Clingman of North Carolina and Robert M.T. Hunter of Virginia in particular used the tariff issue in their repertoire of arguments to bring their latecomer states into the Confederacy, having stayed around for the final vote on Morrill in the Senate with each railing against it to the bitter end. The nascent Confederate government also famously adopted a clause in its Constitution prohibiting protective tariffs, indicating the issue was very much on their minds at the time (as was slavery, a slew of pro-slavery clauses being the only other major changes they made to the document, which otherwise mirrored the U.S. Constitution).

When, if all, would the Morrill Tariff pass if the southern senators had not resigned? This is an issue I’ve researched extensively and there is no simple answer. Consistent with Hunter’s tabling motion from the spring, one possibility was to bottle up the tariff vote until the lame duck session expired on March 4, 1861. Alexander Stephens argued for this strategy in the Georgia debate with Toombs. Sen. Louis Wigfall of Texas offered a different take in a Senate speech that was widely interpreted as a rebuttal to this argument, though it’s a matter of who “counted their votes” correctly. The question ultimately comes down to what the northern Democrats would have done – would they cast a sectional vote in favor of the tariff (as generally happened in the House vote the previous May) or would they have sided with the free trade inclinations of the Democratic Party (a general majority in the party, though there were minority pro-tariff factions as well – President Buchanan among them).

Though it is speculative by necessity given that the event never happened for obvious reasons, my general take is that the Morrill Tariff probably could have been contained by the southerners via parliamentary motions through the end of the lame duck session on March 4, 1861. The tariff would have then passed the new Senate sometime in the Spring owing to a net Republican gain in the 1860 election and the leveraging of Unionist third-party members and pro-tariff northern Democrats. Lincoln also strongly signaled that he intended to make a tariff push after inauguration day while en route to Washington. House reconciliation would have then occurred on an easy vote given the Republican majorities when the regular session began in July, with Lincoln ready to sign it into law. It is therefore likely that secession only hastened the passage of the Morrill Tariff by a few months.

If States Seceded about Tariffs, Why Didn’t They Say So?

Of the eleven seceding states, seven seceded before the Morrill Tariff passed. In their principal statements saying why they left, only Georgia mentions the issue. Its “Report on Causes for Secession” uses the words “slave” or “slavery” 37 times but does not contain “tariff” or “tax.” As Prof. Magness notes, it does contain Toombs’s paragraph that refers to tariffs, using the term “interests,” wherein Toombs does rail against protectionism “in the first years of the republic.” The very next paragraph states, however, that the nation united against protectionist tariffs in 1846, so tariffs ceased to be an issue. Whereupon Georgia reverts to discussing slavery for the rest of the document.

We shall never know for sure, of course, what the Senate would have done with the Morrill bill, had secession not occurred, but the math suggests it would not have passed. Seven states DID leave, of course, and the Morrill tariff DID become law, but the four states that seceded AFTER it became law never mention it as a reason either. Hence, when writing about why the South seceded, I felt justified (and still do) in focusing upon why they SAID they seceded.