Were Tariffs the Cause of the Civil War?

Updated 6/30/13 8:22 P.M.: In the interest of fairness, here is Marotta’s response to his critics, co-written with his daughter, who wasn’t credited as a co-author in his original Forbes piece.

Updated: 7/1/13 3:00 P.M.: I posted a comment to the above post on Marotta’s site politely pointing out the discrepancy between his and his daughter’s claim that their original post only argued that tariffs were one of the primary causes of the Civil War, which was actually not their argument, and that their claim that slavery was waning was unsubstantiated by economic and demographic data. Apparently, they really don’t want you to “speak your mind,” because it was quickly taken down.

According to David John Marotta, they were.

Slavery was actually on the wane. Slaves visiting England were free according to the courts in 1569. France, Russia, Spain and Portugal had outlawed slavery. Slavery had been abolished everywhere in the British Empire 27 years earlier thanks to William Wilberforce. In the United States, the transport of slaves had been outlawed 53 years earlier by Thomas Jefferson in the Act Prohibiting the Importation of Slaves (1807) and the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in England (1807). Slavery was a dying and repugnant institution. . . .

Slavery was an abhorrent practice. It may have been the cause that rallied the North to win. But it was not the primary reason why the South seceded. The Civil War began because of an increasing push to place protective tariffs favoring Northern business interests and every Southern household paid the price.

According to the 1860 U.S. Census, slavery was on the rise and had been for a number of decades.

Slave population of the North in 1790: 40,086; in 1860: 64
Slave population of the South in 1790: 657,538; in 1860: 3,953,696

According to Steve Deyle, slave property ranked only behind real estate in total value of U.S. wealth and expenditures in 1860*:

Assessed value of real estate: $6,973,106,049
Slaves: $3,000,000,000
Capital invested in manufacturing: $1,050,000,000
Livestock: $442,102,000
Cotton crop: $247,027,496
Federal gov’t. expenditures: $63,131,000

I’m sure other bloggers will pick apart the other errors, but southern leaders in 1860-61 can make their own case, as they did at the conventions declaring their secession from the United States:

Georgia

The people of Georgia having dissolved their political connection with the Government of the United States of America, present to their confederates and the world the causes which have led to the separation. For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery. They have endeavored to weaken our security, to disturb our domestic peace and tranquility, and persistently refused to comply with their express constitutional obligations to us in reference to that property, and by the use of their power in the Federal Government have striven to deprive us of an equal enjoyment of the common Territories of the Republic. This hostile policy of our confederates has been pursued with every circumstance of aggravation which could arouse the passions and excite the hatred of our people, and has placed the two sections of the Union for many years past in the condition of virtual civil war.

Mississippi

In the momentous step which our State has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part, it is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course.

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.

South Carolina

In the present case, that fact is established with certainty. We assert that fourteen of the States have deliberately refused, for years past, to fulfill their constitutional obligations, and we refer to their own Statutes for the proof.

The Constitution of the United States, in its fourth Article, provides as follows: “No person held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up, on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.”

This stipulation was so material to the compact, that without it that compact would not have been made. The greater number of the contracting parties held slaves, and they had previously evinced their estimate of the value of such a stipulation by making it a condition in the Ordinance for the government of the territory ceded by Virginia, which now composes the States north of the Ohio River.

The same article of the Constitution stipulates also for rendition by the several States of fugitives from justice from the other States.

The General Government, as the common agent, passed laws to carry into effect these stipulations of the States. For many years these laws were executed. But an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery, has led to a disregard of their obligations, and the laws of the General Government have ceased to effect the objects of the Constitution.

Texas

Texas abandoned her separate national existence and consented to become one of the Confederated Union to promote her welfare, insure domestic tranquility and secure more substantially the blessings of peace and liberty to her people. She was received into the confederacy with her own constitution, under the guarantee of the federal constitution and the compact of annexation, that she should enjoy these blessings. She was received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery– the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits– a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time. Her institutions and geographical position established the strongest ties between her and other slave-holding States of the confederacy. Those ties have been strengthened by association. But what has been the course of the government of the United States, and of the people and authorities of the non-slave-holding States, since our connection with them?

The controlling majority of the Federal Government, under various pretences and disguises, has so administered the same as to exclude the citizens of the Southern States, unless under odious and unconstitutional restrictions, from all the immense territory owned in common by all the States on the Pacific Ocean, for the avowed purpose of acquiring sufficient power in the common government to use it as a means of destroying the institutions of Texas and her sister slaveholding States.

By the disloyalty of the Northern States and their citizens and the imbecility of the Federal Government, infamous combinations of incendiaries and outlaws have been permitted in those States and the common territory of Kansas to trample upon the federal laws, to war upon the lives and property of Southern citizens in that territory, and finally, by violence and mob law, to usurp the possession of the same as exclusively the property of the Northern States.

* Steven Deyle, Carry Me Back, 59.

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19 Replies to “Were Tariffs the Cause of the Civil War?”

    1. I’m not sure which argument you’re referring to, but I assume it’s about the tariff. I would like to see the writer’s evidence for his/her argument before responding.

      One thing s/he misses, though, is that “righteous resolve to abolish the institution left the U.S. with no option other than a resort to arms.” Slave emancipation was never the most important objective of the war and, aside from a few outliers, certainly wasn’t the goal of most northerners in 1861. Slavery could be the main contributing cause of the war without slave emancipation being the corollary main objective.

      1. Thanks for the response. I was curious about the evidence myself and thought you might have an idea what evidence he was relying on if any, since he doesn’t cite any evidence himself. Perhaps there simply isn’t any.

          1. Yeah I appreciate you taking as much time as you have. I was an undergrad not too long ago and I know how hectic the end of the semester is. I imagine it’s just as bad or worse for a professor.

    2. This article is perhaps one of the poorest written pieces of hogwash I have read in recent times. It is devoid of fact and full of fabrication and leaves no room for doubt that the author has absolutely no idea of what he is writing about. He is ignorant of the fact that duties are collected on imports only, that 94% of duties were collected in northern ports, and that the sparse population of the South deprived it of ever developing any import commerce. Secession was driven by aristocratic slaveholders looking for nothing more than to preserve their way of life in a world that was increasingly condemning it. They impoverished the South in so many ways for their own benefit.

      1. Thanks for the comment. I thought it was hogwash as well but was curious what possible evidence, if any, he was trying to base his argument on.

    3. The article’s chief contention is (I believe):
      “The war resulted from causes unrelated to slavery and abolition. It was entirely a consequence of the Southern states’ secession … [T]he South was gravitating toward secession as the remedy for a different grievance altogether: The egregiously inequitable effects of a U. S. protective tariff that provided 90 percent of federal revenue.”

      The article continues to lay out the case as to why the tariff in 1860 caused (in the author’s opinion) “egregiously inequitable effects”.

      However, if we want to know why the South was “gravitating toward secession” we can look at the Declarations of Causes of Secession — the four documents in which the secessionists of SC, MS, GA, and TX tried to tell the world why they were seceding.

      All four place slavery (and the threat to slavery that they perceived from Lincoln’s election) as the central reason for secession.

      Three of the four do not even mention tariffs at all.

      The fourth (Georgia’s), discusses past grievances about tariffs, but ends that discussion with:
      “[T]he country had put the principle of protection upon trial and condemned it. After having enjoyed protection to the extent of from 15 to 200 per cent. upon their entire business for above thirty years, the act of 1846 was passed. It avoided sudden change, but the principle was settled, and free trade, low duties, and economy in public expenditures was the verdict of the American people. The South and the Northwestern States sustained this policy. There was but small hope of its reversal; upon the direct issue, none at all.” [Emphasis added]
      (Please forgive the reposting from earlier in the comments.)

      So, it seems to me that the authors of the article now need to:
      1) Find and present evidence that the tariffs of the late 1850’s/1860 were the dominant cause of secession, and
      2) Make the case that their evidence is more reliable than the official declarations by the secessionists as to why they were seceding.

      For the article to be correct, either the secessionists had deluded themselves as to why they wanted to rend our nation in two, or they intentionally hid their true reason (tariffs) behind a false reason (slavery). I find both of those options far-fetched, to say the least!

      Best
      Jim Bales

  1. Love the post! I would add that, in the response, Marotta and Russell actually quote my favorite part of the Georgia Declaration of Causes, in which the secessionists state that the tariff question had been settled to their satisfaction!

    “[T]he country had put the principle of protection upon trial and condemned it. After having enjoyed protection to the extent of from 15 to 200 per cent. upon their entire business for above thirty years, the act of 1846 was passed. It avoided sudden change, but the principle was settled, and free trade, low duties, and economy in public expenditures was the verdict of the American people. The South and the Northwestern States sustained this policy. There was but small hope of its reversal; upon the direct issue, none at all.” [Emphasis added]

    So, before the war, tariffs were not a reason for secession. After the war, tariffs became a way to rewrite history. Sigh.

    Best
    Jim Bales

      1. It is pretty easy to note how Marotta prefers to cite material written after the war to justify his opinion. This is almost certainly because he cannot use anything written before the war as it doesn’t exist. Just comparing what J.Davis said before and after the war is pretty illuminating. Again, Marotta does what pseudohistorians love to do and that’s mangle the facts to support their ideologies and beliefs.
        I can tell you one thing. I will never put a dollar in anything Marotta manages because if he can’t research his history correctly then he will end up losing money entrusted to him.

  2. Weren’t there some slave states that stayed in the Union? So how could there only be 64 slaves in the North in 1860? Am I misreading something?

    1. Thanks for the comment.

      The 1860 U.S. census was conducted prior to secession. The border states of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware had 429,401 slaves in the 1860 census.

    2. Slave states that were “in the North” would only have included Delaware and New Jersey. Although Kentucky, Missouri and Maryland remained in the Union, they never would have been considered “in the North.”

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