Keeping It Honest: Getting It Wrong

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.

First things first.  Stephen A. Douglas opposed the Morrill Tariff.  Robert Johannsen’s biography of Douglas makes that clear.  Even Wikipedia’s entry on the Morrill Tariff details that opposition.

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.

10 thoughts on “Keeping It Honest: Getting It Wrong

  1. Matt McKeon February 19, 2011 / 6:39 am

    This is why a scholar’s expertise in a non-scholarly forum like CWT is valuable. It’s not that people are unwilling to dig for sources and facts, or don’t respect sources and fact. But to evaluate and understand where those voices are coming from and wanted to achieve, to evaluate them, is a tougher proposition.

    Nice snarkiness by the way. Do you feel better? As a teacher, I don’t find sarcasm very useful in a “teachable moment.”

    • Brooks D. Simpson February 19, 2011 / 8:12 am

      I often find that non-scholars on online forums can dish out being snarky, but they can’t take it. That’s also part of the teachable moment. Here’s a fellow who went after a scholar and managed to reveal his own shortcomings as a researcher. Perhaps the members of the forum in question ought to realize how they come across when they hold forth instead of complaining about being subjected to their own style of discourse.

      Hope you feel better. 🙂

      Such exchanges are precisely why the vast majority of scholars don’t participate in online forums. Why subject oneself to such grief and such rudeness? That, too, is part of the teachable moment. Your own response illustrates what can happen as a result. Scholars who come away from reading this will cite this exchange as a reminder of why they don’t participate in such forums.

  2. Matt McKeon February 19, 2011 / 10:17 am

    Online forums can descend into pits of pure crazy to be sure. Who are these tremendously angry people? Why are they skipping their medication? Always a strong contingent of the utterly certain, as well as that mixture of aggression and thinskinnedness. I moderate there; you should read the stuff that gets deleted. And because a large of number of people will never change their minds, and because new people join up, the same discussions, the same anecdotes and the same facts and myths are repeated over and over. It’s amateurism; the strengths of enthusiasm and interest, but with the lack of context and background that professional scholarship can provide. I don’t know what a professional could gain from participating in a forum, but they could certainly contribute. Its where a lot of people get contact with history.
    I wasn’t trying to be offensive in my first post. On rereading it, it comes across that way. Apologies

    • Brooks D. Simpson February 19, 2011 / 11:32 am

      I appreciate the apology. Thank you. Most forum members in most forums are, in fact, responsible folks, and, as someone who has done his own share of moderating, I understand the thankless nature of the job.

      Let me share with you an experiment I did with graduate students, who are known to be hypercritical of books without realizing that they, too, will have their work subjected to that sort of criticism … and that’s if they are good enough to have their work published. I ask them to act as if the author’s in the room. After all, when I compose a book review, I know the author will read it. That doesn’t mean I pull my punches: it means I have to be willing to stand up and be accountable for what I say and how I say it.

      That changes everything.

      I often come across people commenting on my work on various groups. That’s a good thing in itself. I don’t mind people who disagree with what I say, or who point out where I got it wrong (although sometimes people confuse their belief in my getting it wrong with my failure to agree with them). But I really don’t know what to make of the ensuing speculation as to my motives. Generally speaking, it comes down to a choice between incompetence and evil bias, although there are those who cite both, especially if I say anything about George H. Thomas.

      The speculation about a historian’s motives can get a little wild, and, besides, while it might help explain a mistake, it’s highlighting the mistake that counts. In this case, someone speculated about both motives and ability when in fact they flubbed the evidence. They jumped a step.

      Criticizing historical scholarship responsibly is almost as difficult as actually doing scholarship. That’s why I don’t care for claims that a work is definitive (and usually authors don’t make that claim, at least wise ones). We make mistakes. Yes, some people write with an agenda and that agenda may warp their approach to evidence, but the important thing is to point out the error or offer an alternative perspective, not go into an author’s motive.

      I’ll go into the reasons for error at another time. 🙂

  3. Al Mackey February 19, 2011 / 4:16 pm

    What I’ve found is that many on the various fora tend to use research as weapons in their ideological struggle, not as a tool for understanding. I’m not saying it was JT’s motive, but if it were his motive, then it’s quite possible his purpose was served as soon as he found something that appeared to be useful as a battering ram.

  4. John Taylor February 21, 2011 / 12:48 pm

    Professor Simpson,
    I owe you an apology. I had the impression you held some animus against a white southern or secessionist views on the importance of the tariff. On reflection, I cannot say why I held that view. I thought I had read some posts of yours which indicated such an attitude (perhaps on the old listserve, but I cannot now tell). I therefore retract the comment and apologize.
    That said, I still believe that your tariff post mis-states white southern (or, more accurately, southern pro-secessionist) views on the importance of the tariff. I agree that anyone who says there was one monolithic southern view on the tariff (or anything for that matter) is mis-speaking, to say the least, so the “southern view” is not entirely correct. “Secessionist views” is probably not the right word either, since the tariff was an issue for southerners (and some northerners) that were not secessionists.
    Your post above indicates that Stephen Douglas opposed the tariff. The source for this is a January 1861, after the election of President Lincoln and after the secession of South Carolina (and with other states’ secessions pending), at a time when Stephen Douglas was trying to patch together some form of compromise that would halt the initial wave of state secessions and bring South Carolina back into the Union. Prior to the election, however, Douglas, in trying to win Pennsylvania, he supported “a proper tariff,” and the tariff then on the table was Morrill. Douglas’ views on the tariff were highly contextual. Who knows what would come out of the legislative process, but it appeared to secessionists like Rhett that it would be a tax increase in any case. Rhett, who had been the standard bearer for secessionism since at least 1838, used Douglas’ statement as evidence that northern Republicans were unreliable on the issue, and thus, secession would remove what he saw as an abusive relationship with the northern states. That was not the entirety of Rhett’s pro-secession repertoire, as you well know, but it was part of the pro-secession rhetorical arsenal.
    “Elektratig” on CW Talk, had posted you post “Tariffs, Government Policy, and Secession” as evidence that the issue was not of great importance to southerners inclined to secession, or sitting on the fence considering the policy. Whether Douglas was waffling or not is not as relevant to the matter under discussion on CW Talk as its deployment by pro-secessionists to convince their fellow South Carolinians of the benefits of secession. If the issue was not important to Rhett, he would not have mentioned it. If he did not think it would sway other white low-country South Carolina neighbors, he would not have mentioned it. Perhaps he was imply trying to bolster Breckenridge’s chances in November, but it is possible Rhett (and like-minded individuals) would not have dropped their secessionism, even if Breckenridge had been elected. In any case, Rhett had been harping on the issue of sectional economic exploitation since before the spring Democratic convention.
    Other southern secessionists also echoed the argument in other venues. Robert Toombs’ speech in the Georgia Legislature in November of 1860 (as I’m sure you are aware) employed exactly the same argument that Rhett had used, secession would remove the seceding states from the “joint raid against the South.”
    I don’t think we, as twenty-first century Americans, can dismiss the issue merely because the tariff was simply a product of normal political processes. Just because we may see the Morrill tariff as reasonable and necessary does not mean that secessionists in 1860 (and perhaps those they were trying to convince) did not see the burdens as unacceptable, and thus an argument for secession as a policy.
    I accept the verbal chastisement and admonishment to be more careful in the future, so you follow up post has, in fact, been a teachable moment.

    • Brooks D. Simpson February 21, 2011 / 1:33 pm

      Thank you for your reply. I think you persist in misreading Douglas’s speech in Harrisburg. There’s is a great deal of difference between calling for a “proper tariff” and supporting the Morrill tariff. That’s the difference between offering rather guarded and limited support for something in the abstract (in an effort to gain support in Pennsylvania) and an endorsement of the legislation in question. Douglas was seeking to support on some limited basis the principle without supporting the specific legislation in question. He was waffling. That pro-Breckenridge newspapers would pick up what he said and run with it is to be expected. After all, southern Democrats wanted to show that Douglas was no longer trustworthy. They’d already done that with popular sovereignty. Douglas was caught in a difficult position: in appealing for northern votes, he stood to lose support in the South. Of course, I’d argue that by September 1860 Douglas didn’t stand much of a chance of getting significant support in the Deep South, anyway.

      You talk about northern Republicans, but Douglas was a northern Democrat. Johannsen’s biography simply disagrees with your notion that Douglas was pro-protective tariff or pro-Morrill Tariff, and, while one can understand why pro-Breckenridge papers and Republicans papers took advantage of his comments for partisan advantage, let’s not confuse that with what Douglas said.

      I think that secessionists found in the Morrill Tariff something they could make good use of in making the case for a break, but I don’t think it comes close to being the prime reason for secession. The bill had not even come up for a vote in the House at the time of the Charleston convention. There was no vote in the Senate until after the presidential election. Moreover, you can’t separate one’s position on the tariff from the economic interests involved, and the fact is that those white southerners who opposed the tariff supported an economic interest made possible by plantation slavery (primarily cotton). Louisiana sugar planters offer a contrasting example. So I find dubious efforts to separate positions of the tariff from economic interests, and in this case the economic interest was fundamentally shaped by slavery.

  5. John Taylor February 21, 2011 / 5:23 pm

    Professor Simpson,
    Thanks for taking the time to reply.
    I may be mis-characterizing Douglas’s position in the Harrisburg speech.
    Given the argument you made in your post “Tariffs, Government Policy, and Secession,” however, I don’t think it makes much difference. If the purpose of your post was to examine (and debunk) the thesis that tariffs “explain secession,” it is not so important to render Douglas’s position accurately as to examine what arguments secessionists like Rhett et al. used to get their neighbors to support the policy of secession.
    I agree with you that secessionists (or Breckenridge Democrats, which is not always one and the same) painted Douglas as unreliable on the issue of slavery in the Territories, as well as the tariff, whether the eventual tariff would have been Morrill or some other tariff. What they were objecting to was an increased tariff in any form. If the secessionists did not think this argument would have found some purchase in the minds of their neighbors, they would not have tried to make the argument.
    I also agree with you that Douglas’s chance in the Deep South were slim by September 1860 (they were probably slim by 1858).
    I would agree with you that it did not come close to being “the prime reason for secession.” I agree with Professor Prokopowicz (in his recent interview with Marc Egnal) that a war between the northern and the southern states on economic grounds would simply be inconceivable if all the states in the Union were actively slave-holding (or, conversely, if none of them was slaveholding).
    I just believe that the secessionists cast about for any and all rhetorical arguments they could find to get their neighbors to support secession, and this included the idea that continued membership in the Union was a bad deal for white southerners whether they owned slaves or not. Making this economic argument was an attempt to broaden the appeal of secession. Not every southern citizen was a slaveholder, but all would pay for an increased tariff, or so the secessionist argument went.
    I am skeptical of monocausal explanations for any historical event and believe the various arguments secessionists used were additive and cumulative. These included restriction of slavery from the Territories, the perceived Republican “menace” to white supremacy, and others, including escaping from what secessionists argued was an economically abusive union with the northern states.
    If I might be so bold, have you read Robert Russel’s Economic Aspects of Southern Sectionalism and John Van Deusen’s Economic Bases of Disunion in South Carolina? Both are very dated, but I believe provide insights into secessionists’ (or white South Carolinians’) thinking on economic matters.

    • Brooks D. Simpson February 21, 2011 / 5:57 pm

      Now I think we’re getting somewhere.

      Last things first: yes, I’ve read the titles in question that you mention at the end of your post. They belong to a time in historiography when many people saw economic interests as very important in determining motivation. I think economic motivations form part of the secessionist argument, but that the economic motivation was protecting slavery as an economic institution, much as secessionists wanted to protect slavery for other reasons.

      Now, what did I say? Let’s go back to that post: “In short, “the tariff” as an abstract principle did not cause secession.” Do you disagree with that? Do you disagree with what followed, namely: “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.”

      Now, given that, I’m sure secessionists cited protective tariffs as a way to build support for their position. But what they were really complaining about was more along the lines of what you say: northern dominance. They did not complain about government policy favoring economic interests so long as the economic interests being favored were theirs. The union was not economically abusive while they were having things their own way.

      I see the arguments about tariffs and economic policy as an effort by white southerners to gain more support for their policies, just as Republicans used economic appeals (including the tariff) to gain more support for their positions. I think we are in agreement or near-agreement there. In neither case do I see those arguments as more than efforts to attract more support. Republicans during and after the war divided into protectionists and free traders, so we might not want to stress party unity there. I think Republicans between 1858 and 1860 stressed economic issues and government assistance, not to hit at the South, but to hit at northern Democrats, who were the party in power at the time of the Panic of 1857 and who had no answers for how to respond to the resulting depression. I see the same thing working among secessionists and Breckenridge supporters.

      I do see slavery as connected, one way or another, to nearly all secessionist arguments. Protecting the southern economy meant protecting slavery; the stance on state rights depended on which stance best protected slavery; and so on. I don’t think you can separate either argument from slavery, let alone pose them as mutually exclusive explanations. Remove slavery, and white southerners would not have felt threatened enough to secede.

      I hope that helps you to understand where I am coming from.

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