Tariffs, not slavery, precipitated the American Civil War

July 06, 2013

Arthur Hirsch's recent article about the Battle of Gettysburg reveals a disturbing ignorance of the political dynamics that brought this nation to a war that 150 years later remains the most cataclysmic event in our history ("A defining day relived," July 2).

It accepts the shallow but unchallenged premise that the Civil War occurred because slavery was practiced in the South, and that righteous resolve to abolish the institution left the U.S. with no option other than a resort to arms. This is a myopic view with which many historical facts simply cannot be reconciled.

The war resulted from causes unrelated to slavery and abolition. It was entirely a consequence of the Southern states' secession, which occurred despite the undeniable fact that the slave states could not have hoped for better protection of slavery than that afforded by the U. S. Constitution — provided they remained in the Union.

Both Lincoln and the slaveholders well knew in 1860 that a constitutional amendment ending slavery would never be mathematically feasible. But Lincoln further understood that the 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.

Foreign governments retaliated for it with tariffs of their own, and payment of those overseas levies represented the cost to Americans of their U. S. government. Southerners were generating two-thirds of U. S. exports, and also bearing two-thirds of the retaliatory tariffs abroad.

The result was that that the 18.5 percent of America's citizens who lived in the South were saddled with three times their proportionate share of the federal government's costs.

Campaigning At New York's Cooper Union, Lincoln, arguing for unlimited federal control of slavery in America's territories, seduced his audience with research disclosing how 21 of the 39 Signers of the Constitution, by joining elsewhere in various other acts of legislation that awarded this territorial authority to the U. S. government, revealed that delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention included a clear majority whose intent had in fact been that this authority be granted to the federal government.

But in 1860, the overriding issue of the day was not slavery in the territories: it was secession. And when addressed in this latter context, Lincoln's same research undeniably proves there had been majority intent among delegates to the 1787 Convention that each state was to retain a permanent right of exit. Ten of Lincoln's foregoing 21 Signers represented slave states. Absent a retained secession option, not one of them would have signed a Constitution that empowered the U. S. to prohibit territorial slavery. Alone, the Northwest Territory represented the potential in 1787 for five new non-slave states, which would promptly have reduced the Old South to just one-third of eighteen total states: and the Constitution they were crafting was to permit any amendment that was opposed by only one-quarter of the states — including one that could abolish slavery if six more non-slave states were thereafter admitted. Lincoln could not have failed to recognize that the Signers had been in agreement upon a right to secede, without which no constitution would have gelled at all. Accordingly, secession remained in 1860 a right both legal and honorable.

In the face of all these considerations, Lincoln could have proposed a Southern slave emancipation reciprocated by sweeping federal fiscal reform that would replace the protective tariff with a nationwide income tax. Instead, Lincoln's remedy was the catastrophic one that denied Southerners their exit by military force: which represented exercise of a federal authority conspicuously absent from the all-inclusive list of powers granted by the Constitution to the U. S. government. Such a transformative quid-pro-quo may or may not have proven achievable. But in as much as it was not even attempted, no Gettysburg visitor should ever be led to believe that the Civil War objective of the U.S. was anything other than preservation of its protective tariff in the Old South.

Dennis G. Saunders, Columbia

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