I came across a Twitter conversation today that drew my attention. The topic was the role of tariffs as a cause of the southern states’ secession in 1860-61, which appears to have been prompted by this blog post.

I won’t wade into the morass of opinions exchanged on Twitter, but I do want to address the argument about tariffs.[1] One of the omissions in the blog post is the lack of recognition that white southern opposition to tariffs was not just about the perception of unfair taxation. Part of white southerners’ concern was that the tariff revenue that was generated would be used for the purposes of colonization and the gradual emancipation of enslaved African Americans. Failing to acknowledge that crucial component of the anti-tariff argument is a major deficiency.[2]

Other omissions concern the discussion of the Morrill Tariff of 1861. The author of the blog post notes that following the Panic of 1857, northerners began to push for more protectionist tariffs; that the tariff bill passed the House on mostly sectional lines in May 1860; and that President James Buchanan signed the bill into law before leaving office in March 1861. Some important points the post overlooks:

  1. Rates established by the Tariff 1857 were the lowest they had been since right after the War of 1812.
  2. While many northerners did push for higher tariffs, the region was not united behind protectionism.
  3. The reason the Morrill Tariff made it through the Senate to be signed by Buchanan was because seven southern states seceded. The removal of those 14 senators allowed the bill to pass 25 to 14.[4]
  4. When given the opportunity to state their reasons for seceding, white southerners did not emphasize tariffs as the reason for their decision to leave the Union. If tariffs were so important, they would have said so at the time.

[1] I’ve written blog posts on this topic before here and here.

[2]. On this, see William K. Bolt, Tariff Wars and the Politics of Jacksonian America (Vanderbilt Univ. Press, 2017).

[3]. Congressional Globe, 36th Cong., 2d. sess., p. 1065.

Header image credit: Library of Congress

One thought on “This Tariff Debate Is So Taxing!

  1. Thank you, Mark!

    Apropos your #4, I think you are generous in saying, “[W]hite southerners did not emphasize tariffs as the reason for their decision to leave the Union”.

    Of the four declarations of causes of secession, three (SC, MS, and TX) don’t mention the tariffs at all, and the fourth (GA) actually denies their importance, stating:

    [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.

    I’ll happily grant the author’s contention that, “tariffs [had a] role in fracturing the country”. However, it is clear that Lincoln’s election – and his threat/pledge to end slavery in federal territories – were the sine qua non for secession. As the author does not acknowledge that fact leaves his accusations of dishonesty ringing hollow.


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