Phillip W. Magness

U.S. Economic & Political History

Before you start claiming that tariffs caused the Civil War…

It’s an argument we’ve all heard before: tariffs really “caused” the Civil War. The claim is unequivocally in error and was the historical biproduct of a conscious Confederate diplomatic strategy to draw the free trade-oriented Great Britain to its side in the war despite the latter’s antislavery disposition.

There is a subtler truth though that tariff politics intruded upon the secession crisis, but it is more analogous to another cup of gasoline tossed into a raging inferno than the causal spark that lit the fire. Oddly this nuance is lost upon both those who peddle the causal tariff argument and most of those who set out to rebut them.

Andrew Napolitano committed the first error by offering an iteration of the tariff argument on the Daily Show last night only to be shot down by a panel of three historians and the host Jon Stewart. While the dismissive rebuttal of Napolitano’s debating partners also oversimplified the tariff subject, the result wasn’t particularly pretty to watch.

So a note to historians and political commentators alike who feel the urge to comment on the tariff issue in the Civil War (libertarians should also read this post before weighing in on anything Civil War-related):

1. You need to understand where the Morrill Tariff came from.

It was NOT a Civil War measure. Its genesis is actually almost 3 years before the secession crisis broke out, the tariff being a popular protectionist prescription to “fix” the Panic of 1857 (in other words, think 19th century Keynesian stimulus package). Its full legislative history is detailed in my article on the subject at this link and while I do not mean to indulge in an act of self-promotion, you should be aware that very little detailed analysis has been performed on the history of the Morrill Tariff outside of this article and a few ancillary pieces referenced within. If you have not read this article, you likely do not know the history of this law.

2. You need to understand what the Morrill Tariff did.

The Morrill Tariff was an overtly protectionist law that sought to reverse the course of trade liberalization initiated with the Walker Tariff of 1846 and expanded upon by slight rate reductions with the Tariff of 1857. As with most overtly protectionist legislation, it was the direct product of collusive and sometimes corrupt arrangements between members of Congress and private industries that benefited from the taxes that were placed upon their foreign competitors (in other words, the process that economists refer to as rent seeking). But since legislative favor-peddling of this sort can breed political backlash, the authors of the law were also quite clever in obscuring or even denying their part in the corruption. This was the primary question addressed in my article at the link above, and in doing so I also calculated the equivalent tariff rates on some of the main beneficiary products to illustrate its deeply protective character. So again, if you want to make claims about the Morrill Tariff’s severity or what it was intended to do, you need to read that article.

3. You need to understand the Morrill Tariff’s relationship to the secession crisis.

This is where things get a little tricky. As noted, the Morrill Tariff was NOT the “cause” of the Civil War. But it was also far from absent in Civil War secessionism. By accident of timing and an unanticipated effect of the 1860 election on a previous legislative maneuver on the pending tariff bill, the Morrill Tariff arrived in the Senate in December 1860. Its progress was both a source of complaint for the already-agitated southern secessionists and an assisted result of their departure from the Senate (although its passage was likely only hastened by a few months – the incoming Congress was significantly more disposed toward protectionism). Unscrupulous beneficiaries of the tariff in Congress also seized upon this opportunity to advance and strengthen the protective character of the bill just as the country was falling to pieces around them, hence the Morrill Tariff passed a few days prior to Lincoln’s inauguration. While, again, it was NOT the cause of the war, it was indisputably an irritant during the secession crisis albeit of secondary consideration to the slavery-infused causal instigators of the deep south’s departure. A fuller discussion of this issue may be found here in my article on Tariffs and Secession, which you should also read if you intend to comment on the subject.

4. You need to understand the subsequent use of the Morrill Tariff in Civil War politics.

Quite simply stated, the Morrill Tariff provided the basis of a political argument to stir British sympathy with the south, with the hope of attaining recognition or even wartime support. This was a joint result of hapless mismanagement of the tariff issue in the north and a conscious diplomatic strategy pursued by the southerners. The Morrill Tariff provided the Confederates with a tangible rift to separate the north from Britain and thereby obscure the issue of slavery in their own international diplomatic engagement. To the northerners who derived material benefit for protection it also became a font of graft that almost unwittingly poked Britain in the eye. The best scholarly article on this subject is by Marc-William Palen and is only available behind a paywall.  A summary version of it is available here though at the New York Times’ Disunion blog.

This by no means encompasses all that may be said about the Morrill Tariff or its relationship to the American Civil War, but it should provide a starting point. If you wish to talk about Civil War tariffs and haven’t engaged the four aforementioned issues though, chances are you have reading to do.


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