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

By Phil Magness

Did protective tariffs really bring about the Civil War? It’s an argument that enthusiasts of the era are bound to encounter at some point, and also among the most contentious and least understood of the many debates surrounding the instigating causes of secession 150 years ago this month.

The tariff thesis is contentious because it is often interpreted as an attempt to displace the primacy of slavery as the underlying instigator of events in Civil War causality. In this simplified form, the argument may be easily disposed of by referring to South Carolina’s Declaration of Immediate Causes, which attributed their action to “an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery.” Yet as we will see, the tariff issue cannot be completely discounted from the discussion of Civil War causality.

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 HNN by 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. To state that tariffs were not an issue in 1860 is itself “flatly wrong,” as my recent article in the Journal of the Early Republic illustrates. Nor was the Tariff of 1857 the source of southern angst, but rather the Morrill Tariff of 1861, which had been the subject of an intense political feud in Congress for some two years prior and an issue in the presidential election of 1860. 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.

So where did the tariff issue stand on the eve of the Civil War? Like so many other facets of American politics at the time, it stood in the middle of a complex and heated political fight that fell largely on North-South sectional lines.

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 knownAmerican 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.

Up next in our Civil War at 150 series: the intellectual heritage of Abolitionism.


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  • Thank you for your analysis and inclusion of Northern protectionism,tarriff legislation (Morrill Tarriff)& States right (nullification) as the causes of Southern secession in addition to slavery. Most US historian exclude everything except slavery in their discussions of the Civil War. They ignor economics which has been the cause of most wars.
    One thing both sides had in common was the quest for wealth & increasing profit margins. Aside from slavery not much has changed. Every generation of American has been to war.
    Maybe a more honest analysis of the true causes of wars would end that trend.

    • another thing to add heraldmage is in all of my history book from freshman to junior year, slavery and the tariffs are hardly ever mentioned. people nowadays don’t want to do research on why the civil war happened and will immediately get offended when people wave the southern flag.

      • It wasn’t until the 1950s that the “southern flag” came to be a popular symbol of the south. In the late 1940s, it was waved by those in opposition to northern democrats attempts to end racial oppression in the south. When the southern democrats met to choose their nominee for U.S. president, the confederate flag was used as their symbol (and their platform was in opposition to that of the northern candidates quest to end racial oppression in the south. It was that use of the confederate flag that caused sales to skyrocket. The rest is history. This is the moment that popularized the confederate flag. It’s been linked to racial oppression from the beginning.

        • This was not the issue of the Southern Cross Flag coming under scrutiny as a confederate oppression Symbol. The KKK had adopted a similar flag with its crest and cost of arms emblem in the center of the Southern Cross, after a period of time Flag makers refused to make that flag and the KKK no longer able to have flags produced for its demonstrations chose to carry the southern cross as it was. The Standard State Flag rectangle Southern cross was never a Battle Flag, only the Army of Viginia and a Tennessee regiment carried a square battle Flag with the Southern cross pattern now was the Southern cross in itself ever a Flag of the confederacy. Most people of the South did not care for the Southrrn Cross being carried as a KKK symbol and openly defied its use as a demonstration tool.

    • “Most US historian exclude everything except slavery in their discussions of the Civil War. They ignor economics which has been the cause of most wars.”

      1. You obviously don’t read much American history
      2. Slavery *is* about economics

    • When historians focus on slavery as the cause of the civil war they are not ignoring economics! Slavery was the foundation of the southern economy, and abolition of slavery was a direct and immediate threat to the south’s economy. So, yes, the civil war was all about economics!

  • Nobody is saying that Africans in Africa will ever be a minority
    Nobody is saying that Asians in Asia will ever be a minority.
    So why are they saying Whites will be a minority in Britain in 2036?
    And Sweden in 2024?
    That’s because there’s MASSIVE non-White immigration in EVERY White country and ONLY White countries.
    Because there’s a program of White geNOcide.
    They say it’s “anti-racist” but it’s simply anti-White.
    Anti-Racist is a code for anti-White

  • I wasn’t impressed at all by this article. The tariff with the principal cause of the war not slavery.

  • Solid write up, Phil. As someone who has allowed my annoyance with the revisionist agenda of neoconfederates to jade my perspective on the role of tariffs in the run up to the civil war, it was excellent to read a fair account on the role of tariffs that was based on historical truth, and not a political agenda.

  • personal interest and personal wealth are always usually the cause. Although civil rights are more noble, I doubt people would initiate war because of it. Unless its coming from the oppressed people, which in this case it was not. The war initialization was likely derived from peoples bank accounts, and everything else is probably a spin off to add morality to the issue of the separate crusades.

  • If you read newspaper articles of the time as well as Lincoln’s statements it is plain to see the north was eager to go to war to save the union. New York Evening PostMarch 12, 1861, “WHAT SHALL BE DONE FOR REVENUE”. The South had it’s reasons to secede which yes did include issues on slavery and States rights, but the north had to have war to keep the South money coming in. They were NOT fighting to free slaves until it became the goal of the tyrant Lincoln to keep England and France from recognizing the Confederate States.

  • Very good article. Very fair and very unbiased. As mentioned previously by others, it does seem that nowadays whenever the subject of the American Civil War comes up, most modern historians do not want to even discuss the possibility of other causes such as tariffs being a factor as well. Even if you are willing to admit and acknowledge that Slavery was the main overriding cause, they don’t want to even entertain the thought of other factors and I personally feel that is wrong. It was good to see someone at least say that the possibility of other motives should not be discounted. Keep up the good work!

  • i dont understand sooo.

  • I can’t read this stuff ughhhh

  • Great article, but can a moderator remove the stupid comments? I don’t need to read about some morons fixation with scatology or homosexual insults. Can someone clean it up a little?

  • Good article. I tend to see the territorial disputes over slavery as really disputes over future economic policies. So-called free states would be naturally aligned with the economic policies of the Northern protectionists, thus weakening the representation of Southern free-trade states. The effect of this would only make the South even poorer and beholden to the richer North over time. So while no doubt slavery itself was an issue for a small minority of wealthy landowners, the overall impact would be one of economics. This is what the average person was concerned about since the vast majority of Southerners did not own slaves.

  • Thank you for this article. When I repeat the lesson taught in my high school American history class, I’m given questioning looks. Mr Anderson, my favorite teacher, taught us that it was not slavery itself, but financial reasons causing the war. If it weren’t for the North’s industrialism, and the north had remained full of farming communities, what would have happened? The north had it’s cheap labor, via the Irish, Chinese, and other immigrants. If they hadn’t had them, then what would have happened. Money has driven this country from day one. I thank God for the abolition of slavery, as I’m sure Mr Anderson does as he is African-American.

  • That was a horrible war fought 150 years ago. It was all about big business and cheap labor. The south with slaves and an end product that could only go north. The north with cheap labor (women & children in textiles) and new waves of immigrants being paid just enough for room and board.
    No different than living conditions today. Ironically it still partially revolves around textiles. It’s a flat world and wages paid over the ocean in many cases are just enough to survive from day to day. Big business is still in charge.

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