Tariffs, Government Policy, and Secession

(fourth in a series)

One of the reasons offered to explain secession is that secessionists were opposed to the possible passage of a protective tariff that would favor northern economic interests.  According to some people, tariffs, along with state rights — and not slavery — explain secession.

Exhibit A in this discussion is the Morrill Tariff of 1861, which passed Congress after the first seven states seceded to form the Confederacy.  Like the Corwin amendment, it reached President James Buchanan’s desk on March 2, 1861.  It replaced the Tariff of 1857, a tariff with far lower rates that southerners had supported.

The Morrill Tariff had passed the House of Representatives in 1860 by a significant majority, reflecting the fact that free state congressmen outnumbered their slave state counterparts (although the Republicans did not have control of the House when the 36th Congress opened).  Democrats retained control of the Senate, however.  Partisan and sectional loyalties placed northern Democrats in a challenging position, because Republicans held them accountable for the failure of protective tariff legislation in the wake of a significant economic downturn in the wake of the panic of 1857 (they cited the tariff of 1857 as evidence of an insufficient response controlled by southern interests).  Recall that Republicans did not have to beat southern politicians for seats in state legislatures (which in turn elected United States senators) and in the House of Representatives: they had to beat the northern Democrats who were contesting those seats.  In turn, unless northern Democrats could retain support at the polls (a support that had slipped, first in the 1856 presidential contest, then in the 1858 offyear elections), they would find themselves in serious trouble. How could they present themselves as the party of economic recovery without supporting a protective tariff, widely seen in some corners as essential to American prosperity, at least north of the Mason-Dixon line?

In the election of 1860, Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans endorsed the Morrill Tariff.  Stephen Douglas (the northern Democratic presidential candidate) and John C. Breckenridge (his southern counterpart) opposed it.  Economic issues were important in such states as Pennsylvania, where Republicans held on the the decisive gains they had made in 1858, and which helped them turn back the northern Democrats, securing Lincoln’s victory.  But it was not until the departure of fourteen senators from the Deep South that the Morrill Tariff could pass the Senate.  Thus secession made it possible for the tariff to become law: as secession happened prior to the passage of the legislation, the passage of the legislation did not cause secession, and no southern state seceded between the passage of the act and Lincoln’s call for troops in the wake of the attack upon and surrender of Fort Sumter.  Those facts render highly problematic the claim that “the tariff” caused secession, since the tariff in place at the time of secession, the Tariff of 1857, was very favorable to southern interests.

There are larger issues in play here.  Southerners were not opposed to tariffs in the abstract.  They were opposed to protective tariffs that did not directly protect their interests.  They did not object to protective tariffs that protected southern interests (such as Louisiana sugar plantations).  Generally speaking, protective tariffs protect domestic economic interests from foreign competition by raising the price of foreign-produced goods above the price of their domestically-produced counterpart in the marketplace.  Low tariffs promoted southern economic interests, namely the export of cotton produced and harvested by slaves.

Nor were southerners opposed to the principle of the federal government protecting and promoting economic interests … especially their own.  After all, they endorsed the use of the federal government to protect and promote their most important economic interest: slavery.  In pursuit of that interest, southern political leaders had supported measures looking toward territorial expansion (even if obtained through war and conquest) and the erection of a federal bureaucracy to return fugitive slaves through a process that abridged the civil rights of Americans.

In short, white southerners did not believe in federal neutrality when it came to supporting economic interests.  They thought it was just fine when the federal government supported their interests, even if it meant committing American soldiers to wars of expansion at the cost of American lives or compromising the civil rights and liberties of Americans.  The economic interest they supported was the exporting of the products produced by the commercial capitalistic agribusiness known as plantation slavery.  Slavery made possible that economic interest and made possible its profitability.

Ironically, it was secession that enabled Republicans to pass their ambitious economic agenda during Lincoln’s first term.  The story would have been far different had the Deep South done what everyone before had done when they lost an election: represent their interests in the political process, and look to future elections for voter approval for changes in policy.

Let’s make this painfully clear: a low tariff serves certain economic interests just as a high tariff serves certain economic interests.  Whatever the policy of the federal government might be as reflected in legislation, certain economic interests benefit, and other do not.  One’s position of tariff policy was more often determined by whether that policy would serve one’s interest, and in the slave states that interest was tied, one way or another, to slavery.  In the upper South, where there was more economic diversification, attitudes toward tariff policy were more diverse, and it did not serve as a rallying cry (Virginians in early 1861 talked about the benefits of tariff protection as they sought to diversify).  Not a single state in the upper South seceded in response to the passage of the Morrill Tariff.

In short, “the tariff” as an abstract principle did not cause secession.  Indeed, southerners had accepted tariffs before, especially when they served southern interests.  They had also welcomed other forms of federal support on behalf of their economic interests.  Those economic interests, in turn, were fundamentally shaped by the presence of plantation slavery.  No slavery, no plantations, and the course of southern economic development (and thus southern responses to federal legislation to shape that development) would have been fundamentally different.

Try as you might, somehow it all comes back, one way or another, to slavery and the efforts of secessionists to protect it through secession.


9 thoughts on “Tariffs, Government Policy, and Secession

  1. stephen matlock January 25, 2011 / 8:51 am

    Try as you might, somehow it all comes back, one way or another, to slavery and the efforts of secessionists to protect it through secession.

    Thanks for posting this. It is almost tiresome that we have to keep saying the sky is blue, water is wet, and secession was about slavery.

  2. Stephen Graham January 25, 2011 / 11:06 pm

    IIRC, the Morrill tariff did not come to a vote in the Senate prior to secession, being stuck in committee. But even if it had, there was no guarantee that the Deep South senators would have been uniformly opposed – Louisiana was in general more favorable to the tariff as it tended to confer benefit to its sugar interests.

  3. Brooks D. Simpson January 25, 2011 / 11:34 pm

    I think I mentioned that the Senate vote came after the departure of the delegations from seven states, as well as the mixed interest of Louisiana. Had those seven states stayed in, and had both Louisiana senators voted for the tariff, then it would have passed, 27-26, rather than the 25-14 vote actually recorded. However, I seriously doubt the Louisiana senators would have supported the rates called for in the Morrill tariff, and John Slidell, a Breckenridge supporter, was a fire-eater whose support for tariffs did not extend beyond Louisiana’s interests. That would have reversed the vote to a 26-27 defeat at a minimum.

  4. Corey Meyer January 26, 2011 / 11:03 am


    Very nice explanation of the Tariff issue and in sharp contrast to the video put out by the Georgia SCV’s and rejected by the History Channel on the same topic.

  5. D.M December 13, 2011 / 11:43 pm

    *sigh* I’m going to fail my history class.

  6. Greg Eatroff April 28, 2015 / 6:54 am

    Excellent article. Can you provide links to the roll call votes on the 1857, 1860, and 1861 tariff votes? With 16 southerners and at least half a dozen northern Democrats still in the senate, I’m curious to see who didn’t rally behind free trade.

    • Jimmy Dick April 28, 2015 / 1:49 pm

      To be more exact, Greg, the page you want after going through all the amendments, speeches, and other things is page 1065 from February 20, 1861. That is the final vote on the tariff before it was reconciled with the House and sent to the President’s desk for signing. The House passed its version on May 10, 1860. The vote was 105-64.

      Excerpt from a paper I wrote on this:

      Once the bill reached the Democratic controlled Senate however, it was tabled in the Finance Committee chaired by Senator Robert M.T. Hunter of Virginia. It had absolutely no chance of being passed in that Congress until the election of Abraham Lincoln as the next president of the US triggered the sequence of events that led to the secession of eleven slave states. By February 1st, 1861 six states had left the Union and their Congressional delegations withdrew from Congress. This caused the Democratic majority to change from thirty-five seats to twenty-three while the Republican minority had twenty-nine seats. This put the Republicans in the majority and they were able to take the House bill out of the Finance Committee and put it on the floor.

      Professor Simpson’s post on the subject is correct. The Morrill Tariff did not cause secession or the Civil War. It has been used as a scapegoat in the past by those who do not know their history, but upon a quick examination of the primary sources involved, it becomes very clear that the tariff was not the culprit at all.

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