The Leigh Explanation of Civil War Causation

Yesterday I offered readers of this blog Phil Leigh’s attempt at offering an interpretation of the coming of the Civil War. As several readers noted, Al Mackey made some telling points that call into question certain aspects of Leigh’s interpretation of the Lincoln administration’s position on slavery. I choose therefore to offer several other observations.

First, it appears that Leigh has no problem associating secession with the desire to protect slavery. He passes by that issue altogether … and without secession, there’s no war. But it’s perfectly true that secession may not have guaranteed war, at least the war that broke out in the spring of 1861. In his mind the chief question is why the North ultimately refused to accept Confederate independence.

Leigh opines that historical interpretations owe much to the time in which they are fashioned as well as the perspectives of those historians who fashion them. Fair enough, although he fails to explain how his own perspectives and the time he lives in show us the strengths and weaknesses of his own interpretation. Moreover, although I have much respect for James McPherson, his Battle Cry of Freedom is but one of many books that one would read to gain an understanding of how historians today understand the coming of the Civil War. Indeed, one of the weaknesses one often finds in such discussions on Civil War groups is that so few people (including, it appears, Leigh) are familiar with that body of scholarship. I see nothing here about David Potter, Don Fehrenbacher, or Michael Holt, for example, and their work has contributed a great deal to the discussion of how and why secession and war came. Nor do I see any reference to the equally considerable literature on the great secession winter of 1860-61 and the ensuing Sumter crisis, although that literature has much to say about Leigh’s assumptions about the attitudes of the Northern business community and the debate over how to respond to secession in the North. In short, Leigh’s interpretation rests upon at best a passing acquaintance with a handful of books, several of which seem cherry-picked to support his own views.  He should dip deeply into that literature, perhaps starting with Russell McClintock’s fine study of the northern response to secession, before he offers his lightly-researched claims.

Leigh focuses instead on certain economic issues at stake, specifically US tariff revenue. It is not clear as to whether he understands how a tariff operates. Tariffs are duties laid on imported goods. Thus, a low Confederate tariff (or, for that matter, a high one) had no impact whatsoever on US tariff rates (as opposed to total revenues): the US would have simply lost whatever tariff revenue came from ports under Confederate control. US tariffs protected US industries from foreign (primarily British) competition. Moreover, the Confederates would have to develop their own merchant marine rather quickly, for what goods would arrive at Confederate ports would be carried by foreign carriers, including the US. Those shipping charges add up.

The British (and much of Europe) were at least as dependent on northern-grown foodstuffs as Britain (and to a lesser extent, France) was dependent on the South for cotton. Thus it would not behoove those countries (and especially Britain) to engage in economic warfare against the United States. Moreover, if one lets the Confederacy go, it would be a seven-state Confederacy, which would have been much weaker economically in terms of developing a manufacturing sector. That would have made the Confederacy little more than an economic colony of Britain, selling off raw agricultural materials in exchange for British manufactured goods.

What Leigh implies is something else: that the Confederacy might well have waged economic war against the US by importing foreign goods without levying a tariff and then smuggling those goods northward, evading the US tariff and disrupting the US manufacturing economy. One would welcome documentation of that idea. There would have been an interesting resale market to the US, and that’s worth considering, although those imported duties would have been subject to tariffs as well (Leigh’s smuggling fantasy notwithstanding).

One might try to help Leigh out by saying that such a threat, while it had no basis in fact, haunted many Northerners, moving them to support war. The last link is critical: if such fears do not lead to a call for war, then Leigh’s model collapses. It would be nice if Leigh could document a connection between the concerns he cites and a call for war, but he fails to do so. One could offer evidence that contradicts Leigh’s argument. That the US Congress finally passed the Morrill Tariff after the departure of the first wave of Confederate states suggests that many people in the North were not too concerned about raising the tariff. If anything, secession facilitated this long-desired policy goal. One looks in vain for a discussion of cabinet deliberations to present evidence in support of Leigh’s assertion, and so one can be excused for discarding it as a policy consideration.

Leigh fails to consider other issues in his speculation of what would have happened. For example what do we make of the US being relieved of the responsibility for returning fugitive slaves that escaped the Confederacy? After all, the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 would not apply to slaves held in an independent Confederacy. Oddly enough, the only way the US had an incentive to protect slavery in the CSA was by going to war with it while promising to minimize the damage inflicted on slavery in the Confederacy as a prelude to a limited war and a negotiated reunion. All bets are off with an independent Confederacy, one that might in the end have found itself turning to none other than the US to seek a new source for slaves. Secession turned the interstate slave trade (once that benefitted Virginia, for example, as a seller) into an international slave trade (read the Confederate Constitution to see that it tried to get around this problem by permitting the Confederacy to purchase slaves from the USA). Seems to me that the Confederacy knew that slavery had something to do with it.

But Leigh is not interested in these considerations. At best he is interested in Northern perceptions of US economic interests in considering whether to resist secession. Here he doesn’t understand that the “duty-free” loophole upon which he places so much emphasis simply existed because the Lincoln administration knew that to levy such duties would be to recognize Confederate independence. Levying those duties would have come as a consequence of such recognition. What Leigh is suggesting, in fact, is that the Confederacy was willing to wage economic war upon the USA, which would mean that it was interested, not in being left alone, but in ruining the US, which would give the US reason to declare war.

Leigh’s explanation, in short, justifies a US decision to go to war and places the Confederacy in the position of forcing that war upon the US through economic warfare designed to destroy the US economy. This is at odds with an interpretation that stresses that the Confederacy was formed by people seeking liberty and freedom and the right to be left alone. Rather, from the beginning, as Leigh implies, the Confederacy was an aggressive force concerned not with simply independence but also empire. Otherwise, he’d have to argue that it was the Northern perception of an aggressive Confederacy which would have led to war, and then discount that perception … but a peace-loving Confederacy would not have fired on Fort Sumter, now, would it?

One can simply dismiss Leigh’s observation that once war began some businesses saw the opportunity to profit from it. After all, that does nothing to explain why war came in the first place: certain businesses will always profit from a resulting war, so the observation is commonplace and its utility in supporting the Leigh thesis is dubious at best and useless at worst.  Even more confusing is his claim that northeast industries could then “monopolize commerce with the Midwest.” Given that the South had nothing to offer the Midwest, such would be the case in any case. All the more reason, one might assume, for the Northeast to bid the Confederacy good luck, so that it could monopolize that commerce without having to worry about waging a war that would affect its trading around the world. In short, Leigh’s speculations about the impact of waging war on the US economy overlook a great deal (and lack documentary evidence in support of those explanations).

Leigh’s final paragraph (he shaved off a ranting paragraph about Civil War historiography, which you can find in a previous version here) adds nothing to his argument. After all, his discussion omits altogether an explanation of why seven southern states seceded, although secession’s advocates would have told you that it was to protect slavery. Nor does the discussion of the relative impact of “Roots” and “Gone With the Wind” make any sense. Still, if as Leigh suggests, these things run in 37 year cycles (which they do not, but then he’s poorly educated when it comes to the historiography of Civil War causation), then he can expect that his effort to offer a new framework has at best 37 years to go … although I suspect it will be more like 37 seconds.

It’s time to give up your ghost, Phil Leigh. So you want to be treated like a historian? Welcome … although, judging from the above, you’ll find it very rough going … and, in the end, if you say everyone else is simply projecting their beliefs and circumstances upon the past, then who are you to say that you’re any different?

27 thoughts on “The Leigh Explanation of Civil War Causation

  1. rortensie July 7, 2014 / 4:58 am

    I like Holt’s explanation on why session happened in the South and should be a required reading of anyone who states that they seriously study the Civil War. Now his “The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War,” I have yet to finish that tome of scholarship.

  2. Pat Young July 7, 2014 / 5:02 am

    I found this passage from Leigh’s essay odd:

    “Characteristic of the dogma that typically depicts Southern failures as resulting from stupidity or arrogance, modern Antietam scholars conclude that Lee’s invasion of the North after Second Bull Run was driven by overconfidence. Yet they fail to even consider an important aspect of his viewpoint, which was the fact that Beauregard and Johnston were castigated in Richmond about a year earlier for failing to try what Lee attempted.”

    So instead of being guilty of overconfidence, Leigh implies that R.E. Lee was driven by pusillanimity. He seems to say that Lee risked the lives of his men and the existence of his army to avoid being “castigated” by Jefferson Davis. And if Davis was being stupid or arrogant in his demands to exploit victories in the South with quick thrusts northward, then wouldn’t that mean that the defeat was the result of “stupidity or arrogance” within the leadership of the CSA, although Lee would perhaps better be described as cowed, in Leigh’s analysis, rather than “overconfident.”

  3. Andy Hall July 7, 2014 / 6:42 am

    “Leigh focuses instead on certain economic issues at stake, specifically US tariff revenue. It is not clear as to whether he understands how a tariff operates. Tariffs are duties laid on imported goods. Thus, a low Confederate tariff (or, for that matter, a high one) had no impact whatsoever on US tariff rates (as opposed to total revenues): the US would have simply lost whatever tariff revenue came from ports under Confederate control.”

    A misunderstanding of tariffs seems to be a common problem; they’re vaguely understood to be a tax of some sort but, as always, the details matter a great deal. As for the lost federal income from southern ports, even the largest of those, New Orleans and Charleston, generated a tiny amount of revenue compared to large ports in the North. The vast majority of customs posts in the South (and a great many elsewhere) operated at a deficit, the cost of maintaining an office, inspectors, etc. exceeding the revenue they generated.

  4. John Foskett July 7, 2014 / 9:09 am

    You, Al, Andy and others have shown this “analysis” for what it is. On a simpler level, two things struck me: (1) conceding in passing (as he must) that secession was driven by concern over the future of slavery, Leigh goes down a lengthy side trail on economic issues and (inaccurate) conclusions about what the North was fighting for, before circling back to now apparently toss the slavery point under the bus; (2) the entire postulate is bizarre, given that the war started when Confederate forces fired on a U.S. military installation.

    • Brooks D. Simpson July 7, 2014 / 11:15 am

      It’s an interesting reply. Note that Leigh appears afraid to link to the discussion here … but at least he’s attempting to reply to me, for it appears he ignored Al Mackey’s telling response to an earlier version. So things are improving.

      Let’s look at some of Leigh’s logic. I note that the Lincoln cabinet did not discuss the Morrill Tariff. His response: “The fact the Lincoln’s cabinet would not discuss a compromise on the Morrill Tariff is compelling evidence that it was nonnegotiable.” Read what I said, Phil, and then tell me how the complete lack of evidence, once twisted, constitutes the best sort of evidence.

      Leigh manages to confuse the buying and selling of goods with the transportation of goods. Nor does he understand the simple point that if the Lincoln administration recognizes an independent Confederacy, then the CSA is a foreign country, whose exports (including goods from third parties shipped first to the Confederacy and then to the United States) would be subject to a tariff. Thus, levying a tariff on goods coming from New Orleans to Chicago represents a de facto recognition of Confederate independence … which is why it wasn’t levied, thus causing the commentary in the newspapers.

      And on and on and on. But at least some of you will now visit his website.

      • Jimmy Dick July 7, 2014 / 11:47 am

        He keeps focusing on the Morrill Tariff which is flat out wrong. He misses the point each time on that tariff, but I am not surprised. It is a key part of the Lost Cause argument.

      • John Foskett July 7, 2014 / 1:22 pm

        In other words, simply one more thing Lincoln avoided which might have sounded good but would have been de facto recognition of independence/nation status.

        • John Foskett July 7, 2014 / 1:34 pm

          Meant to add that, having read one of his replies over there, he’s now trying to draw the distinction between slavery as the cause of the pre-Fort Sumter secessions and the “reasons the soldiers on each side chose to fight.” For starters, he should spend some time with Manning’s well-researched book which provides an interesting insight into motivations of the Southrons. Here’s a hint – a great many more than the Lost Causers would accept were motivated by the Yankee threat to you-know-what, whether they were plantation owners or, like so many, were small farmers whose only workforce was the family. After he does that, he can put up all of those references in Yankee diaries and letters to tariffs, profit margins, etc. He’ll first have to plow through a bunch of references to Union and related concepts, as well as a significantly smaller collection of nonetheless numerous references to you-know-what.

          • Brooks D. Simpson July 7, 2014 / 1:37 pm

            I don’t think it’s a serious discussion any more. He’s desperate. That’s what happens when you basically recycle something someone else has written and then find yourself unprepared to be challenged. That’s why everyone can be their own historian, but that doesn’t mean they will be a good one.

      • Christopher Shelley July 11, 2014 / 4:12 pm

        Don’t hold your breath for a response. I made just two small remarks and they have yet to be published. Maybe he just doesn’t have time…

        • Brooks D. Simpson July 11, 2014 / 4:15 pm

          He has plenty of time to complain, but none to respond? Perhaps he just can’t deal with criticism. He has a long track record in that regard. Perhaps he’s just busy.

          • Christopher Shelley July 11, 2014 / 9:36 pm

            I notice he is not fond of the “Grant clique,” either. That’s of less concern to me than his Libertarian nonsense, but as a Grant-Sherman fan, I’d like to think he’s wrong there, too. I don’t have mastery of those details enough to know one way or the other.

    • Brooks D. Simpson July 7, 2014 / 9:23 pm

      Mr. Leigh is taking his time posting my responses on his blog. I wonder why. Combined with his refusal to link to this discussion and to address Al Mackey’s observations, one wonders whether he is prepared to engage in open discussion … or whether he even desires it.

      • Al Mackey July 8, 2014 / 7:44 am

        Some things never change indeed. As I read through his “responses” I thought I was transported back a decade to the old USENET days. It was the same lack of logical thought, the same failure to deal with the facts, the same assumptions about others made out of total ignorance, and all from the same source. If indeed Mr. Leigh would like to be taken seriously as a historian, then perhaps he ought to think about first making himself good enough to be taken seriously as a historian. One way to do that might be taking to heart criticisms of one’s thesis by an eminent historian and trying to learn from it. Just saying.

  5. Lyle Smith July 7, 2014 / 11:27 am

    I don’t disagree with the evidence presented by either Al or Professor Simpson. However, I do think Mr. Leigh has a point about holding on to the view that many southerners still have a moonlight and magnolias view of the South’s history. He’s probably right to say that such thinking is mostly a thing of the past. The probably has a lot to do with the writings of McPherson, Blight, and many others though.

    • Brooks D. Simpson July 7, 2014 / 11:57 am

      I think that for many white southerners the challenge is to deal with how many people select a few examples and render them as representative of the whole region. Most white southerners simply aren’t that way. They are not obsessed by the Civil War, they don’t long for the days of slavery, and so on. Oh, I may want to challenge their understanding of a few things, but I dare say that’s not limited to people who live in the South. Stereotyping white southerners is simply stupid, and making certain fringes representative of the whole is just plain wrong.

      • Lyle Smith July 7, 2014 / 7:35 pm

        Yep, I agree.

      • Jim H July 8, 2014 / 3:07 pm

        I agree too. Whenever I get into an angry state, I remind myself that I was born in South Carolina.

  6. The other Susan July 7, 2014 / 11:47 am

    Most Sesquicentennial-era historians cite slavery references in the secession documents of the seven cotton states as the root cause of the war and thereby falsely equate the reasons for secession with the reasons the soldiers on each side chose to fight.

    This is just a ridiculous claim, and he’s not the first person to say it this week.

  7. rortensie July 7, 2014 / 3:20 pm

    I do not know who this guy is so I thought I’d look him up and ran across this sentence in a review of one of his books: “My review should be taken with a grain of salt because the editor chose to use a number of my freely available Wikipedia maps to illustrate the book.” A new blurb for Wikipedia’s site: “Wikipedia, the scholars outlet.”

    • Brooks D. Simpson July 14, 2014 / 11:18 am

      Well, Phil, I guess you can’t argue the merits of your case. Simply put, you exaggerate the importance of “Roots.” You minimize or ignore altogether a great deal else. But since you are now in your usual snarky mode, I see that further discussion with you is useless. Suffice it to say that you sure took your time to post selected versions of the responses left on your blog.

      Take care, Phil. Try not to mislead people too much.

      • Christopher Shelley July 14, 2014 / 11:27 am

        At least he actually responded to your comments. I guess I’m too little a fish to “Civil War Chat” with.

        And does he really believe “Roots” is why most Americans think slavery was the major cause of the war? (Assuming, of course, that most Americans do indeed think that.)

        As an undergrad, I once tried to use a film as evidence to demonstrate a sea-change in the thinking of Americans. I had about as much evidence as Mr. Leigh does for “Roots”. My instructor destroyed me.

        • Brooks D. Simpson July 14, 2014 / 11:52 am

          Mr. Leigh once said that blogs reflected the point of view of the blogger and were little more than echo chambers. I think his blog proves his point. Given his performance there, he can’t complain if I now treat him the same way here.

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