The Tariff Road to Secession and War

Protectionism versus Free Trade

Part 7 of 8 of a Series on the Morrill Tariff

Whig leaders in congress were again able to pass protectionist legislation in the Tariff of 1842, also known as the “Black Tariff.”

Robert Toombs, Georgia statesman and soldier. Public domain photo.

This tariff primarily benefited the iron industry, nearly doubling the rates for both raw and manufactured iron goods. It also raised the percentage of dutiable items from about 50 percent to over 85 percent of all imported items.  By 1843, imports had dropped by half, thus actually reducing total tariff revenues. Exports dropped approximately 20 percent. This was replaced by the 1846 Walker Tariff that lowered tariff rates to pre-1842 levels after the Whigs lost the presidency and Congress in the 1844 elections.50


The 1857 “Free-Trade” Tariff was passed by a nonpartisan coalition dominated by conservative Southern Democrats and reduced tariff rates to almost free-trade levels. This was strongly opposed by Northern industry and Northern industrial workers. When a financial panic caused by loose banking practices resulted in a Northern recession in 1857, the Republicans blamed it on free trade and the 1857 Tariff Law. By 1858, the Republicans had submitted new tariff legislation, the Morrill Tariff, to the House Ways and Means Committee.51


Like many modern legislative attempts to conceal the purposes, costs, and political and economic benefits and injuries of a bad bill, the title of the Morrill Tariff commences with deceptive obfuscation:


“An Act, to provide for the payment of outstanding treasury notes to authorize a loan…”52


Tying legislation to urgently needed treasury needs or some alleged crisis is a common method for rushing bad bills through Congress. Sometimes bad bills are held back so they can be rushed through Congress under the cover of urgency and confusion. No one, of course, wants to be responsible for halting the wheels of government and causing injury to the public, whether the alleged damaging consequences are probable or the improbable fiction of demagogues. Many bills are filled with pages of unrelated pork-barreling to enhance their passage through Congress. The Morrill Tariff and other protectionist legislation during the 19th Century made extensive use of logrolling to entice bargains made between various special interests, but these bargains inflicted injury and injustice on the South.


On November 13, 1860, U.S. Senator Robert Toombs addressed the Georgia Legislature to explain the nature and urgency of the national situation. They were in the process of deciding whether to call a state convention to consider secession. Toombs spoke at some length about the Morrill Tariff, which had already passed the U.S. House. Beginning with an analogy comparing the protectionist coalition in Congress withthe avaricious craftsmen of Ephesus crying out in their materialistic idolatry, “Great is Diana of the Ephesians” (Acts 19: 28), he pointed to the cooperation of the Radical Republicans and the radical abolitionists in passing the Morrill Tariff. (Actually, most of the Radical Republicans were also radical abolitionists.).  He called this coalition a union of “cupidity and fanaticism.”53 He went on to say of this political logrolling bargain that:


The result of this coalition was the infamous Morrill bill—the robber and the incendiary struck hands, and united in joint raid against the South…Thus stands the account between the North and the South. Under its ordinary and most favorable action, bounties and protection to every interest and every pursuit in the North, to the extent of at least fifty millions per annum, besides the expenditure of at least sixty millions out of every seventy of the public expenditure among them, thus making the treasury a perpetual fertilizing stream to them and their industry, and a suction-pump to drain away our substance and parch up our lands.”54  


Toombs served briefly as Confederate Secretary of State for five months in 1865 but resigned to accept a position as a Brigadier General and Brigade commander in the Confederate Army. He was wounded in hand at Antietam on September 17, 1862, where he made a heroic defense of Burnside’s Bridge.  He resigned in March 1863 over political differences with President Jefferson Davis and became a cavalry officer and brigade commander of Georgia Militia. On Easter Sunday, April 16, 1865, serving under General Howell Cobb, Toombs defended the Chattahoochee River Bridge against Union assault at the Battle for Columbus, perhaps the last Civil War battle east of the Mississippi. He continued to be politically influential in Georgia until his death in December 1885.


The whole history of protectionist legislation, especially the 1828 and 1832 tariffs, should have alerted all Americans to the danger that the Morrill Tariff posed to the nation. Its ideological predecessors had caused a crisis in 1832 that brought the nation to within days of secession and military conflict that could easily have expanded. Yet sectional prejudices, self-interest, and greed blinded the dominant Northern political and economic interests to that danger in 1860 and 1861. The Morrill Tariff was so damaging to the interests of the Southern cotton-producing states that it essentially forced them out of the Union. The hardened and unrelenting prejudice of the dominant political and economic interests of the North toward the South left little hope for justice or reasonable compromise. Secession was felt to be the only honorable choice.


The secession alternative, moreover, offered considerable economic opportunities to the South. Unjust taxation and the self-serving revenue expenditures of the Northern dominated Congress were certainly strong motives for secession. In that sense the war was a tariff war, as British newspapers were saying. But it was also a war between free trade and protectionism. Lincoln expressed it in his conversation with Colonel Baldwin. If Charleston, New Orleans, Mobile, Wilmington, and Savannah were free market ports with tariff rates of 10 to 15 percent or lower, what would happen to Boston, New York, and Philadelphia with Lincoln’s high tariff?  The answer is that commercial shipping and the prosperity that it brings would shift to low-tariff Southern ports. The Northern states would lose their main source of tax revenues, and their industries would have to compete with British imports. Such an adjustment was correctly seen as economically and politically disastrous in the short run. A secession movement even arose in New York City whose Democratic Mayor, Fernando Woods, hoped to make it an independent free port.55


At first Northern public opinion as reflected in Northern newspapers of both parties recognized the right of the Southern States to secede and favored peaceful separation.  A November 21, 1860, editorial in the Cincinnati Daily Press said this:


“We believe that the right of any member of this Confederacy to dissolve its political relations with the others and assume an independent position is absolute.”56


     The New York Times, on March 21, 1861, reflecting the great majority of editorial opinion in the North summarized in an editorial:


“There is a growing sentiment throughout the North in favor of letting the Gulf States go.”57


However, Northern industrialists became nervous when they realized a tariff dependent North would be competing against a free-trade South.  They feared not only loss of tax revenue but also considerable loss of trade.  Newspaper editorials began to reflect this nervousness.


On December 10, 1860, the Daily Chicago Times reflected on the ruin and bankruptcy that Southern free trade might bring upon the North:


“Let the South adopt the free-trade system [and the North’s] commerce must be reduced to less than half what it is now…Our labor could not compete…with the labor of Europe [and] a large portion of our shipping interest would pass into the hands of the South.”58


On March 12, 1861, the staunchly Republican New York Evening Post advocated that the  U.S. Navy “abolish all ports of entry” into the South. It seemed to them to be cheaper than the administrative expense of collecting the tariff.59


The Newark Daily Advertiser, on April 2, 1861, editorialized that Southern free trade “must operate to the serious disadvantage of the North,” and should be stopped by military force.60


The Boston Transcript, on March 18, 1861, warned:


“The mask has been thrown off, and it is apparent that the people of the principal seceding states are now for commercial independence. They dream that the centers of traffic can be changed from Northern to Southern ports. The merchants of New Orleans, Charleston, and Savannah are possessed of the idea that New York, Boston, and Philadelphia may be shorn, in the future, of their mercantile greatness, by a revenue system verging on free trade…The government would be false to its obligations if this state of things were not provided against.”61


Thus we can see an important cause of the war that has been suppressed by its apologists. The Morrill Tariff was the last and ultimate injury and insult in a chain of nearly 40 years of protectionist Northern abuse of the South. Southern secession and the free-trade policies made indelible in the Confederate Constitution would wreak economic havoc on Northern shipping and industry, demolish the North’s South-exploiting tax revenue base, and frustrate their plans for attaining national greatness.


Abbreviated Footnotes part 7 of 8 (FN 50-61)


FN50  Tariff of 1842 (Black Tariff), Tariff of 1857 (Free Trade Tariff). Wikipedia. Last accessed

December 26, 2021.

FN51 Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tariff_of_1857).

FN52  Spence, p. 186


FN53 Robert Toombs Speech to Georgia Legislature, Nov. 13, 1860.

(http://www.civilwarcauses.org/steph2.htm) Last accessed August 9, 2011.

FN54  Ibid.

FN55  Dilorenzo, p. 241

FN56 Howard Cecil Perkins, Northern Editorials on Secession (Gloucester, Ma: Peter Smith,

1964) Quoted in  DiLorenzo, p. 108.

FN57  Perkins, Quoted  in DiLorenzo, p. 109

FN58 Perkins, Quoted in DiLorenzo, p. 243

FN59  Ibid.

FN60  Ibid.

FN61  Kenneth M. Stampp, Causes of the Civil War (Inglewood , NJ: Spectrum Books, 1960), p.

80, Quoted in Durand, 344.







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