December 05, 2004

The Cause of the Civil War

A surprising number of people in the libertarian movement credit tariffs are the source of the Great Rebellion, and suggest that the war was an act of tyranny and belligerence. This is almost always, in my experience, an anti-war libertarian, and I believe that one's position on the 1860s is a defining trait toward paleolibertarianism. Lew Rockwell, anarchists, some of the economic Austrians and in general the most purist libertarians tend to take this position that the Civil War is misunderstood, the South was maligned, slavery was on the outs anyway, and the North was evil and dictatorial. I call them paleolibertarians, though these statements are a symptom and not the fully defining trait of paleolibs.

I have an extensive argument on why tariffs were not the cause and slavery was. I have argued this constantly so it's nice to have finally written what I hope is a comprehensive reason why the South seceded over slavery, not tariffs. I wrote it first to post here on SomethingAwful's D&D board. I am reproducing it now because I think it's a fun discussion. Anyone looking for reading on the subject should get Eric Foner's wonderful book and an easy read (for me) Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: the Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War.

So now, why DID the war happen? Why did we get the war? They seceded and we fought. Why?

On the Dixie side:

South Carolina seceded over slavery and the fear of what the North would do. Remember, the Republicans were almost entirely a party of the North and the West, a sectional party. Thus, they had next to no legitimacy in the eyes of Southerners and Lincoln had not appeared on the ballot throughout most of the South. They seceded to defend slavery - their economy and their way of life.

Really, you can't be surprised. It was socially threatening, to both the poor whites who had somebody to look down on and the Planter class (truly a pseudo-aristocracy, only 1 or 2% of the population in most states) who depended on cheap, exploitable labor to rise to such wealth and maintain an inefficient, feudalistic manorial system of plantations. Socially it would have changed everything - and indeed it did. Economically it meant an entire restructuring of the economy and a sudden spike in the cost of labor, something they were not happy about.

It also fought their self-image. In the late 18th century slavery was ignored or unspoken of. After a few decades it underwent vicious assaults by a small and slow-growing percentage of Yankees, and Southern sociologists and academics took up a defense of the South and slavery. Slavery went from a necessary evil to a positive good - instead of a bad thing they needed, it was something to be preferred and enjoyed. So they held onto slavery as part of their lives.

Of course, they felt slavery was humane - that black people were savages who could not govern themselves and would not feed or care for themselves otherwise, instead going about to be lazy or drunk or violent and raping. They also felt that they treated slaves as family members, supported and fed them, and criticized Yankee factory labor as 'wage slavery' - which is the real origin of the term in the US.

It affected the South across the board, and slavery was the issue. You'll notice secession is determined by slavery. In rough order, the more slaves the state had proportionally, the faster it seceded (roughly) - South Carolina, with a HUGE proportional slave population, went first. Virginia, with one of the lowest slave proportions in the CSA (it was the Chesapeake, where slaves were less useful, and had the largest population of free black people at the time), seceded in the last round of states. The border states of MD, MO, DE and KY had slave populations more like 10, 15% or less and so did not secede. It was almost directly relative.


On the Yankee side:

Lincoln invaded for politics and ideology - both slavery and unionism (both tied the concept of a representative republic). His constituency and political base included several prominent groups at this time:

- old Line ex-Whig Republicans, staunch union-loving big government conservatives who wanted to save the union at all costs (and opposed slavery after that)
- radical and liberal Republicans from the Liberty and Free Soil Parties who wanted the opposition of slavery and suppression of the 'Slave Power' at all costs (and wanted the union saved after that)
- moderate Republicans, like Lincoln himself, who wanted BOTH: the union saved and slavery opposed
- ex-Democrats in the GOP, who more than perhaps any other group had an abiding hatred of the South after their perceived abuse in the Southern-dominated Democratic Party, and held positions supporting the union and opposing slavery

This entire constituency had plenty of reasons to support the war - they rallied behind the flag, rallied around democracy, but mostly they rallied to unionism and shortly thereafter to abolitionism.

It's rather obvious in retrospect WHY he invaded. He had a coalition of people who, when added together, hated slavery, hated the South, and loved the union. Of COURSE they supported invasion like that. Plus I mean, people thought it could be the end of democracy.

The average person in the North genuinely believed that if the South split off then the Americas would become just like Old Europe - a damnable title if there were any in the US of the 1860s - and constantly fight, backstab and squabble. It was WIDELY held that the American republic persevered because the people were unified and did not uselessly fight and war each other. Therefore, the Civil War was an attack on the entire continent's way of life and living, or so the average person thought. Then factor in unionism, patriotism, anti-slaveryism, etc.



I laugh at tariffs as the cause. Pish. It wasn't tariffs. Here is the South Carolina Secession Causes primary-source document. The word 'tariff' and any derivation do not appear there, neither does the word 'rate' or 'rates.' There is no mention of 'trade' or anything about 'excise.' The word importation appears once, relating to slaves, and the word tax appears once, again relating to slaves. It wasn't fucking tariffs, it was slavery.

What reasons DID SC give for seceding? Basically, it's a historical lesson about the sovereignty and independence of each state, the right of secession, the need to be free, and then an explanation of how slavery was supposed to be an integral part of the Constitution and was obviously legal but now the free states (they said non-slaveholding states) were hostile to it. That's it. A lot of energy devoted to explaining the legal and moral right to secede, all the justifications focused on the North's hostility to slavery. Yeah, REALLY tariff-focused folks - they hated tariffs so much SC didn't mention them once in the causes of secession. That's SO fucking believable I can't stand it.

Was there any difference in tariffs? Yes. The South was agrarian, they engaged in a great deal of beneficial trade with Britain and wanted low tariffs to encourage the trade. The North was industrializing since the 1820s and 1830s, they were at a substantial loss compared to Britain and they wanted protection to compete. Simple, if not ethically based. So the CSA dropped tariffs from the 1857 US rate of 15% average to 13.3% average. The GOP in 1858 bumped it up to average in the 20s or 30s, then years and decades later got closer to 47%. So... what, they seceded to cut tariffs from 32 to 13.3 percent? Yeah, that really seems like it's worth a whole damn war, considering that Southerners had been often supporting higher tariffs from the president and even Congressmen.

Tariffs were to be the main issue after Reconstruction ended and before imperialism really got kicking - the 1880s especially. They fought over it constantly and realized that there was an awful murky middle ground since there were almost NO free traders (a direct tax being supremely unpopular) and few closed-borders protectionists.

Of course, the issue is more complex to us modern-day types - the 1850s and 1860s GOP strongly represented business and commercial interests that wanted protection. The Democrats of the same time strongly represented non-business elements that wanted cheaper goods and were openly hostile to business and commerce. So funnily enough it was the pro-intervention people defending an advanced economy, unlike today when the anti-industrialization, anti-corporation people hate free and open trade. (Of course, I'd have been free trade back then on principle, like the UK Liberals of the era who were pro-free trade and pro-business).


Does the Constitution mention tariffs? It mentions excises, yes, but only in a single clause - where it merely authorizes Congress to create them. Oooh, big compromise there.

Does the Constitution mention slavery? Not in direct verbiage, it being horribly tasteless to defend freedom and slavery at once, but it contains several critical slave compromises, in fact three of the four most important constitutional compromises after bicameralism:
- the 3/5ths Compromise giving partial representation on the basis of non-voting resident slaves
- the Fugitive Slave Clause allowing Southerners to reclaim escaped slaves
- the 1808 Compromise that protected the slave trade until 1808 (twenty year period) at which point Congress could vote to ban it

The slavery compromises are regarded widely now as they were then: critical to the inclusion of the slave states (or at least, those south of Virginia) to being included in the Union. Without these compromises it's VERY likely no Constitution could have been created. In fact, Thomas Jefferson wrote a scathing indictment of King George relating to slavery for placement in the Declaration of Independence. He was always seen as a hothead, which he was, and the other members of the writing commission removed the segment from the presented draft in order to not scare off the Southern delegates - unanimity was considered vital to the Declaration.

After these times, the US had major national compromises. Were they tariff levels? Did they set trade policy or work on internal improvements? No! It was the Compromise of 1820, the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act. These were seen as major aspects of the American government - the Missouri Compromise (1820) was placed alongside the Constitution and the Declaration by most Americans.

When the country erupted in riots and violence before the war, was it pro-tariff people killing anti-tariff people? No! It was stuff like Bleeding Kansas where support for and opposition to slavery became cause for murder. And John Brown stole muskets and built a small militia of Biblical swordsmen to free the slave and cause a general rebellion - NOT to do anything regarding tariffs.

When the North and West created the Republican Party, was it a coalition of people who loved tariffs? No, because in the first year or two the ex-Democrats - Barnburners in New York and anti-slavery Democrats especially - who started it up. Even after it was full of ex-Whigs by a 3 to 1 ratio, the ex-Whigs even acknowledged that there was a greater proportional role from the ex-Democrats and that the ex-Democrats possessed almost all of the activist strength in the organization. Unfortunately for LewRockwell and Dixiecrats everywhere, the ex-Democrats in the GOP were very fearful of large tariffs or Whigs coming in to push protectionism and the strong preponderance of Republicans were not interested in protectionism; the heart and soul of the GOP activists were disproportionately leaning anti-tariff.

When new states were added or opposed, was it to maintain balance in the Senate on the tariff issue? No, everyone admitted it was to keep the balance on slavery. Everybody knew this was the case and said so. Slavery absorbed the Congress' time.

When the Supreme Court worked on controversial cases, were they governing the tariff? No, it was Dred Scott v. Sanford, which attacked the root of abolitionism and kicked the corpse of the Missouri Compromise. It was the Lemmon case, which was to be heard by the Supreme Court on the eve of the Civil War, and would have overturned a NY state ruling against the transit of slaves through the North and would have de facto legalized slavery in the entire US. Nobody was running cases on tariff-raisers or tariff-dodgers. Christ.

Did tariffs divide the nation geographically? In part, yes, just as economic interests divide the country today. But the tariff was an acceptable issue to support in the South, at least in part - the old Whig party had been competitive in the South. In 1840, Whig William Henry Harrison won NC, GA, TN, MS, LA and KY of the South, even though Whigs were quite pro-tariff. Henry Clay won only NC, TN and KY in 1844 - but he lost a number of Northern, pro-tariff states as well and came within a couple swing-points of winning GA, LA and VA. Overall 1844 and 1840 saw very respectable numbers given to the pro-tariff Whig. But GOP's Fremont in 1856 received votes from only two slave states - MD and DE, which together gave him a mere 600 votes - the Southerners instead gave the non-Democratic votes to... the pro-tariff Whig-American candidate Fillmore. In the South, supporting the tariff was less popular due to economic exigencies but very common - but voting for a perceived abolitionist like Fremont or Lincoln was not heavily unpopular but actually impossible. Anti-slavery candidates were not allowed on the ballot, but pro-tariff candidates had a very reasonable chance at winning Southern states. That should be telling.

Was the election of Lincoln a stunning, unprecedented victory for the pro-tariff forces that the South had uniformly opposed? No. Again, the South had often supported pro-tariff candidates. Lincoln and his Republican party were a coalition with one clear political link: opposition to slavery. From the unionist, stodgy conservative Whigs to the Barnburner Democrats to the Radical Free Soilers to the Moderate leader, the GOP was linked by people who thought slavery detestable - and the South as leading a divisive Slave Power bent on shaping the country to its will (which conservative unionists saw as disunion and anti-slavery radicals saw as moving slavery into the North). There was no precipitating event in 1860 from the tariff perspective, because Lincoln thought the tariff too divisive an issue to even include in the 1860 GOP platform (though it was). The election of Lincoln, the first GOP victory of the White House, WAS a precipitating even in the slavery battle, because the GOP was united around slavery and opposition to the South more than any other issue.


Tariffs, supposedly the REAL reason behind the Great Rebellion, were so critical that they were completely unmentioned by South Carolina, the state to begin secession, which instead blamed northern hostility to slavery and state independence almost exclusively. The tariff was such a pressing national issue that it had zero compromises in the Constitution or in the US society, unlike slavery which had at least three in the Constitution and three hugely important compromises subsequent to that. The tariff presented no major court cases like slavery did with Dred Scott and Lemmon. Tariffs failed to incite violence like Bleeding Kansas or John Brown. Pro-tariff literature was not being sent into the South and censored by Democratic postmasters, but abolitionist newsletters were. Southern states often voted for pro-tariff candidates but when it came to anti-slavery Fremont and Lincoln they couldn't even get on the ballot.


The tariff line is a joke, invented by Dixiecrat apologists for the South and Marxist opponents of the United States, and furthered by pacifists and paleolibertarians with a political interest in explaining away any war as unnecessary. The South seceded to defend the economic and social aspects of slavery; the North invaded to defend the political and ideological interests of unionism-republicanism and anti-slaveryism. It's not as ideal as I'd like - the Yankee men marching gallantly through the streets freeing starving slaves and whisking them away to fulfilling, respected lives in the Western territories - but it's definitely a good start, and damned more justifiable as a war than the tariff explanation is as an argument.

2 Comments:

Blogger DevP said...

Wow. My high school history teacher (who gave us both excerpts from "People's History of the US" and actual historical documents, alongside a standard textbook) generally was teaching the conclusion that tariffs *were* the big issue, oddly enough. This is a great post - thank you. As for this phrase:

"the North was evil and dictatorial"

I think you can say that the Civil War was a just war, and was based on freeing human beings form bondage, and that the North was not acting evilly, BUT there was tyranny and dictatorial governance involved. Alien & Sedition acts, Sherman's march... I think I can say, without being hypocritical or backwards, that the Union forces initiated some terrible, terrible outcomes, for the ultimate purpose of human emancipation.

"I wrote it first to post here on SomethingAwful's D&D board."

Great political thought always starts this way. :-)

December 29, 2004 2:22 PM  
Blogger DevP said...

Theory: economic conditions and opposition (e.g. tariffs) lay the groundwork for truly deepening social divides (slavery), but they're not the whole story. Just as differing economic conditions help deepend social divides in our red and blue states, but that its not the whole story (hence, people "voting against their economic interests").

December 29, 2004 2:27 PM  

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