Lincoln’s Economic Legacies: The National Republican Platform 1860


Part 3 of a Series

Article 1 is largely introductory. Article 2 calls for the preservation of the principles of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, including, ironically, the rights of the states. Article 3 denounces threats of disunion as contemplated treason. Article 4 declares, again ironically, that the rights of the states are inviolate, especially the rights of states to use their own judgment in ordering and controlling their own domestic institutions (slavery) and rejects invasion or armed force against any state. The Republican Platform of 1860 did NOT advocate the abolition of slavery or interfering with slavery in Southern states. Their concern was to prohibit the spread of slavery to Northern states and new territories.

Article 5 condemns Southern interference in Kansas politics and Southern Congressional support for the 1857 Lecompton Constitution allowing slavery. Article 6 accuses the Democrats of unspecified fiscal irresponsibility. Articles 7-10 assert Republican displeasure and disagreement with Southern views and actions concerning, for the most part, the constitutionality of slavery in U.S. territories. Article 11 calls for the immediate admission of Kansas as a “free” state, based on the 1859 Wyandotte Constitution prohibiting slavery.

Article 12 supported the “adjustment” of protectionist duties profitable to Northern manufacturing interests. This “adjustment” would more than double tariff rates within three years. In 1860, there was no Federal income tax. Over 95 percent of Federal revenues came from tariffs on imported goods. Over 87 percent of the revenue burden fell on Southern states. Only 20 to 25 percent of Federal tariff revenues directly benefited the South. Furthermore, tariffs not only raise costs to consumers generally, they are especially harmful to exporters whose sales and profit margins are reduced. Tariff policy had been a bitter issue between North and South since Henry Clay’s 1824 tariff. In 1832, after two more grievously unfair tariff “adjustments,” South Carolina resistance resulted in the Nullification Crisis that almost brought South Carolina into armed conflict with Federal troops attempting to enforce the tariff It was resolved by compromise in 1833, but continued to put stress on Southern good will toward Northern commercial and political interests. The South favored low tariffs and free trade, which was also the policy of their largest trading partner, Great Britain.

Article 13 protests against the sale of government land held by actual settlers. Article 14 opposed any change in naturalization laws. Article 15 called for Congressional appropriations for river and harbor improvements. Article 16 demanded immediate government involvement in the construction of a railroad to the Pacific Ocean. Article 17 simply calls for affirmation and support for the Republican Platform, and in fact, it was approved by unanimous consent. The Supplemental Resolution held the Democratic Party responsible for some violations of the Constitutions regarding free opinion in several unspecified states unspecified as to issue.

It was Article 12, advocating a huge increase in tariff rates to protect the profitability of Northern manufactured products from foreign (primarily British) competition that threatened Southern economic well being and destroyed Southern confidence in Northern fairness and the Union.

Lincoln was an avid supporter of the American Economic System of Henry Clay and campaigned vigorously for the Morrill Tariff in Republican state conventions, winning the Republican nomination at the May 1860 Convention on that basis. His advocacy for the Morrill Tariff continued in the general election, and his ultimate general election victory became a major provocation to Southern secession. The Morrill Tariff and its successor tariffs promulgated economic destruction on the South for many decades, perhaps exceeding the destruction of the war itself.

John Spence, a British political analyst writing in 1862, was appalled at the brash sectionalist tyranny that the Morrill Tariff imposed upon the South. His censure was bare-knuckled:

“It would be difficult to contrive more ingenious machinery for dealing injustice, restricting commerce, perplexing merchants, creating disputes, inviting chicanery, or driving officers of the customs to despair.”

The Morrill Tariff raised the average ad valorem tax on dutiable goods from 20 percent to 36 percent in 1862 and scheduled an increase to 47 percent within three years. The overall average rate, including non-dutiable items, would increase 67 percent from 16 percent to 26 percent by 1862 and to 34 percent within three years.

Only one of 40 Southern Representatives voted for the Morrill Tariff, when it passed the U.S. House in May 1860. None of the remaining Southern Senators voted for it, when it passed the Senate just two days before Lincoln’s inauguration. Lincoln, however, strongly supported it and sternly promised its enforcement in his inaugural speech.

Because of the need for war revenue, the average tariff was 35.6 percent by 1865. The average rate was increased during Reconstruction and was 44.6 percent by 1870. Following Reconstruction, the average overall tariff rate ranged from 27 to 36 percent until Woodrow Wilson’s election in 1912. Ill-conceived economic policy and high tariffs would return again during the Great Depression, with devastating results.

From 1874 to 1904 the Southern economy, hampered by discriminatory protective tariffs and the punitive economic policies of Reconstruction, had a real annual growth rate of only 1.1 percent, barely half the Northern rate of 2.0 percent.

Protective tariff policies and corporate subsidies are political behavior that economists call “rent-seeking.” It is the practice of establishing economic advantage by government regulation rather than successful free market competition. In rent-seeking economies, lobbyists seek special privileges and exemptions to establish monopolies, obtain government subsidies and contracts, and protection from foreign or domestic competition. They often seek government regulations that would crush competitors. This departure from classical economic competition produces a powerful faction of “political entrepreneurs” who succeed primarily by influencing government to enact favorable legislation or to establish regulations that reduce competition.

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