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 U. S. "Civil War" was over
have to an enormous degree been miseducated. The means and timing
handling the slavery issue were at issue, although not in the overly
simplified moral sense that lives in postwar and modern propaganda.
But had there been no Morrill Tariff there might never have been
war. The conflict that cost of the lives of 650,000 Union and
Confederate soldiers and perhaps as many as 50,000 Southern civilians
and impoverished many millions for generations might never have
A smoldering issue of unjust taxation that enriched Northern
manufacturing states and exploited the agricultural South was
to a furious blaze in 1860. It was the Morrill Tariff that stirred
the smoldering embers of regional mistrust and ignited the fires
Secession in the South. This precipitated a Northern reaction
call to arms that would engulf the nation in the flames of war
Prior to the U. S. "Civil War" there was no U. S. income
Considerably more than 90% of U. S. government revenue was raised
a tariff on imported goods. A tariff is a tax on selected imports,
most commonly finished or manufactured products. A high tariff
usually legislated not only to raise revenue, but also to protect
domestic industry form foreign competition. By placing such a
protective tariff on imported goods it makes them more expensive
buy than the same domestic goods. This allows domestic industries
charge higher prices and make more money on sales that might
otherwise be lost to foreign competition because of cheaper prices
(without the tariff) or better quality. This, of course, causes
domestic consumers to pay higher prices and have a lower standard
living. Tariffs on some industrial products also hurt other domestic
industries that must pay higher prices for goods they need to
their products. Because the nature and products of regional
economies can vary widely, high tariffs are sometimes good for
section of the country, but damaging to another section of the
country. High tariffs are particularly hard on exporters since
must cope with higher domestic costs and retaliatory foreign tariffs
that put them at a pricing disadvantage. This has a depressing
effect on both export volume and profit margins. High tariffs
been a frequent cause of economic disruption, strife and war.
Prior to 1824 the average tariff level in the U. S. had been
15 to 20 % range. This was thought sufficient to meet federal
needs and not excessively burdensome to any section of the country.
The increase of the tariff to a 20% average in 1816 was ostensibly
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
leadership of Henry Clay began to push for high, protective tariffs.
These were strongly opposed by the South. The Southern economy
largely agricultural and geared to exporting a large portion of
cotton and tobacco crops to Europe. In the 1850’s the South
accounted for anywhere from 72 to 82% of U. S. exports. They were
largely dependent, however, on Europe or the North for the
manufactured goods needed for both agricultural production and
consumer needs. Northern states received about 20% of the South’s
agricultural production. The vast majority of export volume went
Europe. A protective tariff was then a substantial benefit to
Northern manufacturing states, but meant considerable economic
hardship for the agricultural South
Northern political dominance enabled Clay and his allies in Congress
to pass a tariff averaging 35% late in 1824. This was the cause
economic boom in the North, but economic hardship and political
agitation in the South. South Carolina was especially hard hit,
State’s exports falling 25% over the next two years. In 1828 in
demonstration of unabashed partisanship and unashamed greed the
Northern dominated Congress raised the average tariff level to
Despite strong Southern agitation for lower tariffs the Tariff
1832 only nominally reduced the effective tariff rate and brought
relief to the South. These last two tariffs are usually termed
history as the Tariffs of Abomination.
This led to the Nullification Crisis of 1832 when South Carolina
called a state convention and "nullified" the 1828 and
as unjust and unconstitutional. The resulting constitutional crisis
came very near provoking armed conflict at that time. Through
efforts of former U. S. Vice President and U. S. Senator from
Carolina, John C. Calhoun, a compromise was effected in 1833 which
over a few years reduced the tariff back to a normal level of
15%. Henry Clay and the Whigs were not happy, however, to have
forced into a compromise by Calhoun and South Carolina’s
Nullification threat. The tariff, however, remained at a level
15% until 1860. A lesson in economics, regional sensitivities,
simple fairness should have been learned from this confrontation,
if it was learned, it was ignored by ambitious political and business
factions and personalities that would come on the scene of American
history in the late 1850’s.
High protective tariffs were always the policy of the old Whig
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
Morrill of Vermont) raising the average tariff from about 15%
with increases to 47% within three years. Although this was
remarkably reminiscent of the Tariffs of Abomination which had
1832 to a constitutional crisis and threats of secession and armed
force, the U. S. House of Representatives passed the Bill 105
Out of 40 Southern Congressmen only one Tennessee Congressman
U. S. tariff revenues already fell disproportionately on the
accounting for 87% of the total. While the tariff protected Northern
industrial interests, it raised the cost of living and commerce
the South substantially. It also reduced the trade value of their
agricultural exports to Europe. These combined to place a severe
economic hardship on many Southern states. Even more galling was
that 80% or more of these tax revenues were expended on Northern
public works and industrial subsidies, thus further enriching
North at the expense of the South.
In the 1860 election, Lincoln, a former Whig and great admirer
Henry Clay, campaigned for the high protective tariff provisions
the Morrill Tariff, which had also been incorporated into the
Republican Party Platform. Lincoln further endorsed the Morrill
Tariff and its concepts in his first inaugural speech and signed
Act into law a few days after taking office in March of 1861.
Southern leaders had seen it coming. Southern protests had been
no avail. Now the South was inflamed with righteous indignation,
Southern leaders began to call for Secession.
At first Northern public opinion as reflected in Northern newspapers
of both parties recognized the right of the Southern States to
and favored peaceful separation. A November 21, 1860, editorial
the Cincinnati Daily Press said this:
"We believe that the right of any member of this Confederacy
dissolve its political relations with the others and assume an
independent position is absolute."
The New York Times on March 21, 1861, reflecting the great majority
of editorial opinion in the North summarized in an editorial:
"There is a growing sentiment throughout the North in favor
letting the Gulf States go."
Northern industrialists became nervous, however, when they realized
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. Lincoln had promised in his inaugural speech that
would preserve the Union and the tariff. Three days after
manipulating the South into firing on the tariff collection facility
of Fort Sumter in volatile South Carolina, on April 15, 1861,
called for 75,000 volunteers to put down the Southern rebellion.
This caused the Border States to secede along with the Gulf States.
Lincoln undoubtedly calculated that the mere threat of force backed
by more unified Northern public opinion would quickly put down
secession. His gambit, however, failed spectacularly and would
into a terrible and costly war for four years. The Union Army’s
of success early in the war, the need to keep anti-slavery England
from coming into the war on the side of the South, and Lincoln’s
to appease the radical abolitionists in the North led to increasing
promotion of freeing the slaves as a noble cause to justify what
really a dispute over just taxation and States Rights.
Writing in December of 1861 in a London weekly publication, the
famous English author, Charles Dickens, who was a strong opponent
slavery, said these things about the war going on in America:
"The Northern onslaught upon slavery is no more than a piece
specious humbug disguised to conceal its desire for economic control
of the United States."
"Union means so many millions a year lost to the South;
secession means loss of the same millions to the North. The love
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
Karl Marx, like most European socialists of the time favored
North. In an 1861 article published in England, he articulated
well what the major British newspapers, the Times, the Economist,
Saturday Review, had been saying:
"The war between the North and South is a tariff war. The
is further, not for any principle, does not touch the question
slavery, and in fact turns on the Northern lust for power."
A horrific example of the damage that protective tariffs can
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
25%. It is fairly well known by competent and honest economists
that protective tariffs usually do more harm than good, often
considerably more harm than good. However, economic ignorance
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
can be enormous.
The Morrill Tariff illustrates very well one of the problems
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
can be enforced, e. g., States Rights, Nullification, etc. The
to limit centralized government power to counter this natural
depravity in men was recognized by the founding fathers. They
well the irresistible tendencies in both monarchy and democracy
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
delegating only certain functions and powers to the federal
government and retaining others at the state level and lower.
constitutional provisions including the very specific guaranty
States Rights and limits to the power of the Federal Government
the 10th Amendment are unfortunately now largely ignored by all
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
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
North and South, but one of many tensions. It cannot be said to
the cause of the war. Fully understanding the slavery question
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
"All these cries of having `abolished slavery,’ of having
the country,’ of having `preserved the Union,’ of establishing
a `government of consent,’ and of `maintaining the national honor’
are all gross, shameless, transparent cheats—so transparent
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
was certainly a powerful factor predisposing the South to seek
independence and determine its own destiny. As outrageous and
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,
always the high ground. It will have the inevitable victory
In addition to the devastating loss of life and leadership during
War, the South suffered considerable damage to property, livestock,
and crops. The policies of "Reconstruction" and "carpetbagger"
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.
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
any interest in overthrowing their own or anyone else’s state
governments. The Southern states had seen that continued union
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
give up their Southern Colonies. A more appropriate name for the
uncivil war of 1861-65 would be "The War for Southern Independence."
But had it not been for the Morrill Tariff there would have been
rush to Secession by Southern states and very probably no war.
Morrill Tariff of 1860, so unabashed and unashamed in its short-
sighted, partisan greed, stands as an astonishing monument to
self-centered depravity of man and to its consequences. No wonder
most Americans would like to see it forgotten and covered over
more morally satisfying but largely false version of the causes
the Uncivil War.