One of the most interesting things about being a historian of the era of the American Civil War is that you encounter so many people who present themselves as knowledgeable about the war, the scholarship about the war, and the people who write about history. Sometimes those folks even present themselves as knowledgeable about both your skills as a scholar and your motivations.
Take, for example, a recent discussion in a well-known discussion forum, Civil War Talk, concerning a post I offered on this blog about tariff policy and the coming of the war. “JohnTaylor” was unhappy with it.
Here Simpson displays his obvious antipathy for southern views. Fair enough, but it blinds him to any real effort at understanding southern views on the tariff as an economic issue.
He states that Douglas opposed the Morrill tariff.
In fact, the Charleston Mercury reported on September 13, 1860 (pg. 1, col. 2), that Douglas had said in a stump speech, that “The only remedy [to Pennsylvania's problems] is a proper tariff.” Of course, the “proper tariff” being considered at the time, was the Morrill tariff, which had passed the House of Representatives the previous spring, only to die in the Senate. The Richmond Enquirer on September 25th, 1860 (quoting the Columbus, Ga. Times) noted that Douglas had endorsed a protective tariff in a speech in Harrisburg, Penn.
I cannot tell whether Professor Simpson is merely ignorant of the fact, or his blindness is willful in this instance. Either way, southerners at the time made note of it at the time.
Simpson goes on to note that the withdrawal of southern members of Congress made the passage of the Morrill bill possible. Simpson is saying, “It serves them right for leaving.” Southerners thought that the change of opinion of northern Democrats like Douglas and Buchanan made the passage of the bill inevitable, even if they did not leave the Union. Secessionists like Rhett and Yancey probably could not have cared less what the US Congress did after the southern states had left the Union
In any event, Simpson is mis-stating southern views on the issue for whatever reason.
Why “JohnTaylor” doesn’t know that is best left for him to explain.
However, what’s even more amusing is that “JohnTaylor,” who confuses Douglas’s speeches in September 1860 concerning a protective tariff (and the reports of said speeches in southern newspapers) with support for the Morrill Tariff, then speculates that I’m not taking into consideration “southern views” (not all southerners shared the same view), thus displaying my “obvious antipathy” to such views. What he means by this I have no idea.
It’s a common tactic to try to discredit someone’s scholarship by simply claiming bias. It’s a tactic often used by people who can’t do any better when it comes to the merits of the case. Given that “JohnTaylor” has already fumbled a basic fact, I need only point that out to discredit his take on my post. Speculating on his motives might explain why he got it wrong, but in truth that’s not important. What is important is that he’s wrong on the facts.
In the process, moreover, “JohnTaylor” fumbles the importance of the only actual information he brings to bear on the whole matter: the September 1860 reports in several southern newspapers about Douglas’s position on the tariff.
Now, what would we know about the Charleston Mercury, the Columbus (GA) Times, and the Richmond Enquirer? And what do we know about what Douglas said at Harrisburg? Well, let’s turn first to Johannsen, who says (p. 791) that in the speech in question Douglas was “skirting the question in such a way as to appear favorable to protection.” He knew that in Pennsylvania opposition to a protective tariff damaged Democratic electoral prospects. As a result, Douglas nodded toward protectionism, although he did not endorse the Morrill Tariff: rather, he attempted to fudge the issue as “a way of standing on both sides of the issue.” Republican papers highlighted his flipflopping on the issue.
But what about the Charleston Mercury and the Richmond Enquirer? Well, one might first want to consider that the Mercury might want to report Douglas’s remarks as being pro-protective tariff because the Mercury, opposed as it was to Douglas’s candidacy, wanted to stress that he was pro-tariff, placing its own spin on Douglas’s waffling. The Enquirer, unlike the Mercury, had adopted a different position on Democratic politics in 1860: it had battled the Mercury on whether southerners should remain within the national Democratic organization. However, it eventually supported the candidacy of John C. Breckenridge, and this it was also in the interests of the Enquirer to emphasize the difference between Breckenridge and Douglas on the tariff issue and portray Douglas as untrustworthy on the issue. It was no accident that it reprinted a report from the Columbus Times, another pro-Breckenridge paper.
In short, if “JohnTaylor” had really wanted to understand southern perspectives (remember, anyone who simply speaks of “the” southern perspective is distorting history in the first place), “JT” would have looked into Douglas’s position on the tariff, learned something about what he said at Harrisburg (and why he said it), and then looked at how those newspapers he cited reported the issue and why they reported it that way. That, however, would have involved some real research and a real understanding of history. Instead, “JT” hastened to discredit a post and speculate on the motives of the scholar who made it. In the process “JT” revealed his own research skills to be somewhat less than satisfactory. Rather, he seems to have been as duped by these reports of Douglas’s position as the newspapers in question hoped their readers would be. Maybe it’s a reenactment.
I found it amusing that “JT” commented a few posts later: “What I always liked about this forum is the willingness to members to dig into the record to support their arguments.” “JT” might have done a little more digging himself.
If I happened to be mean-spirited, I might paraphrase something “JT” said, and remark: “I cannot tell whether ‘JohnTaylor’ is merely ignorant of the fact, or his blindness is willful in this instance.” But I’ll forego that option and rest content with demonstrating that folks might want to do a little more research and be a little more careful. We’ve all had our moments where we wish we had done so: I thank “JT” for offering me an opportunity to use his claim as a teachable moment.