UNDERSTANDING THE CAUSES OF THE UNCIVIL WAR
A Brief Explanation of the Impact of the Morrill Tariff
By Mike Scruggs for the Tribune Papers
Most Americans believe the
A smoldering issue of unjust taxation that enriched Northern manufacturing states and exploited the agricultural South was fanned to a furious blaze in 1860. It was the Morrill Tariff that stirred the smoldering embers of regional mistrust and ignited the fires of Secession in the South. This precipitated a Northern reaction and call to arms that would engulf the nation in the flames of war for four years.
Prior to the
Prior to 1824 the average tariff level in the U. S. had been in the 15 to 20 % range. This was thought sufficient to meet federal revenue needs and not excessively burdensome to any section of the country. The increase of the tariff to a 20% average in 1816 was ostensibly to help pay for the War of 1812. It also represented a 26% net profit increase to Northern manufacturers.
In 1824 Northern manufacturing states and the Whig Party
under the leadership of Henry Clay began to push for high, protective
tariffs. These were strongly opposed by
the South. The Southern economy was
largely agricultural and geared to exporting a large portion of its cotton and
tobacco crops to
Northern political dominance enabled Clay and his allies in
Congress to pass a tariff averaging 35% late in 1824. This was the cause of
economic boom in the North, but economic hardship and political agitation in
This led to the Nullification Crisis of 1832 when
High protective tariffs were always the policy of the old Whig Party and had become the policy of the new Republican Party that replaced it. A recession beginning around 1857 gave the cause of protectionism an additional political boost in the Northern industrial states.
In May of 1860 the U. S. Congress passed the Morrill Tariff Bill (named for Republican Congressman and steel manufacturer, Justin S. Morrill of Vermont) raising the average tariff from about 15% to 37% with increases to 47% within three years. Although this was remarkably reminiscent of the Tariffs of Abomination which had led in 1832 to a constitutional crisis and threats of secession and armed force, the U. S. House of Representatives passed the Bill 105 to 64. Out of 40 Southern Congressmen only one Tennessee Congressman voted for it.
In the 1860 election,
Lincoln, a former Whig and great admirer of Henry Clay, campaigned for the high
protective tariff provisions of the Morrill Tariff, which had also been
incorporated into the Republican Party Platform.
At first Northern public opinion as reflected in Northern
newspapers of both parties recognized the right of the Southern States to
secede and favored peaceful separation.
“We believe that the right of any member of this Confederacy to dissolve its political relations with the
others and assume an independent position is absolute.”
The New York Times on
“There is a
growing sentiment throughout the North in favor of letting the
Northern industrialists became nervous, however, when they
realized a tariff dependent North would be competing against a free trade South.
They feared not only loss of tax
revenue, but considerable loss of trade.
Newspaper editorials began to reflect this nervousness.
Writing in December of 1861 in a
“The Northern onslaught upon slavery is no more than a piece of specious humbug disguised to
desire for economic control of the
the North. The love of money is the root of this as many, many other evils. The quarrel between the
North and South is, as it stands, solely a fiscal quarrel.”
Karl Marx, like most European socialists of the time favored
the North. In an 1861 article published
“The war between the North and South is a tariff war. The war, is further, not for any principle, does
not touch the question of slavery, and in fact turns on the Northern lust for power.”
A horrific example of the damage that protective tariffs can exact was also seen in later history. One of the causes of the Great Depression of 1930-1939 was the Hawley-Smoot Act, a high tariff passed in 1930 that Congress mistakenly thought would help the country. While attempting to protect domestic industry from foreign imports, the unanticipated effect was to reduce the nation’s exports and thereby help increase unemployment to the devastating figure of 25%. It is fairly well known by competent and honest economists now that protective tariffs usually do more harm than good, often considerably more harm than good. However, economic ignorance and political expediency often combine to overrule longer-term public good. As the Uncivil War of 1861-5 proves, the human and economic costs for such shortsighted political expediency and partisan greed can be enormous.
The Morrill Tariff illustrates very well one of the problems with majoritarian democracy. A majority can easily exploit a regional, economic, ethnic, or religious minority (or any other minority) unmercifully unless they have strong constitutional guarantees that can be enforced, e. g., States Rights, Nullification, etc. The need to limit centralized government power to counter this natural depravity in men was recognized by the founding fathers. They knew well the irresistible tendencies in both monarchy and democracy for both civil magistrates and the electorate to succumb to the temptations of greed, self-interest, and the lust for power. Thus they incorporated into the Constitution such provisions as the separation of powers and very important provisions enumerating and delegating only certain functions and powers to the federal government and retaining others at the state level and lower. Such constitutional provisions including the very specific guaranty of States Rights and limits to the power of the Federal Government in the 10th Amendment are unfortunately now largely ignored by all three branches of the Federal Government, and their constant infringement seldom contested by the States.
The Tariff question and the States Rights question were therefore strongly linked. Both are linked to the broader issues of limited government and a strong Constitution. The Morrill Tariff dealt the South a flagrant political injustice and impending economic hardship and crisis. It therefore made Secession a very compelling alternative to an exploited and unequal union with the North.
How to handle the slavery question was an underlying tension between North and South, but one of many tensions. It cannot be said to be the cause of the war. Fully understanding the slavery question and its relations to those tensions is beyond the scope of this article, but numerous historical facts demolish the propagandistic morality play that a virtuous North invaded the evil South to free the slaves. Five years after the end of the War, prominent Northern abolitionist, attorney and legal scholar, Lysander Spooner, put it this way:
“All these cries of having ‘abolished slavery,’ of having ‘saved the country,’ of having ‘preserved the
shameless, transparent cheats—so transparent that they ought to deceive no one.”
Yet apparently many today are still deceived, are deliberately deceived, and even prefer to be deceived.
Unjust taxation has been the cause of many tensions and much bloodshed throughout history and around the world. The Morrill Tariff was certainly a powerful factor predisposing the South to seek its independence and determine its own destiny. As outrageous and unjust as the Morrill Tariff was, its importance has been largely ignored and even purposely obscured. It does not fit the politically correct images and myths of popular American history. Truth, however, is always the high ground. It will have the inevitable victory
In addition to the devastating loss of life and leadership during the War, the South suffered considerable damage to property, livestock, and crops. The policies of “Reconstruction” and “carpetbagger” state governments further exploited and robbed the South, considerably retarding economic recovery. Further, high tariffs and discriminatory railroad shipping taxes continued to favor Northern economic interests and impoverish the South for generations after the war. It is only in relatively recent history that the political and economic fortunes of the South have begun to rise.
One last point needs to be made. The war of 1861-65 was not a “civil”
war. To call it the “Civil War” is not a
historically accurate and honest use of language. It is the propaganda of the
victors having attained popular usage. No one in the South was attempting to
overthrow the U. S. government. Few
Southerners had any interest in overthrowing their own or anyone else’s state
governments. The Southern states had
seen that continued union with the North would jeopardize their liberties and
economic wellbeing. Through the proper
constitutional means of state conventions and referendums they sought to
withdraw from the Union and establish their independence just as the American
Colonies had sought their independence from Great Britain in 1776 and for very
similar reasons. The Northern
industrialists, however, were not willing to give up their Southern
Colonies. A more appropriate name for
the uncivil war of 1861-65 would be “The War for
But had it not been for the Morrill Tariff there would have been no rush to Secession by Southern states and very probably no war. The Morrill Tariff of 1860, so unabashed and unashamed in its short-sighted, partisan greed, stands as an astonishing monument to the self-centered depravity of man and to its consequences. No wonder most Americans would like to see it forgotten and covered over with a more morally satisfying but largely false version of the causes of the Uncivil War.
Mike Scruggs is an historian who now lives in Hendersonville, NC
Charles Adams; For Good and Evil: The Impact of Taxes in the Course of Civilization, 1993.
Charles Adams; When in the Course of Human Events: Argueing the Case for Southern Secession, 2000.
Frank Conner; The South Under Siege 1830-2000; A History of the Relations Between North and South, 2002.
John G. Van Deusen; Economic
Bases of Disunion in
Thomas J. DiLorenzo; The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War, 2002.
Ludwell H. Johnson; North Against South: The American Iliad 1848-1977, 2002 printing.
Mark Thornton; Tariffs, Blockades and Inflation: The Economics of the Civil War, 2004.
Principal Reference and Recommended Listening
Dr. David Livingston; Rethinking