Americans sympathetic to the Union generally believe the war was fought to end slavery or to “rescue the slaves” from political kidnapping by the slave states, that seceded from the Union to avoid impending abolition.
“No,” say those sympathetic to the Confederacy. The states seceded over states’ rights, particularly their right not to be victimized by high protectionist tariffs, paid mostly by southern states, but spent mostly on what we’d now call corporate welfare and infrastructure projects in the north.
The declarations of South Carolina, Mississippi and Texas don’t mention taxes or economic policy at all.
That the states seceded for a different reason than the war was fought seems to elude everyone.
States’ Rights, Tariffs, or Slavery?
There is plenty of secondary literature presenting evidence on both sides, which is why Americans are still arguing this tired point over 150 years after the war ended. But there is a pretty simple way to clear the air. Just read the primary sources and take everyone at his word.
Many of the Confederate states published declarations explaining their reasons for seceding from the Union. The problem for those making the tariff argument is only a few of these declarations even mention the tariff, and then only in passing. The declarations of South Carolina, Mississippi and Texas don’t mention taxes or economic policy at all.
But what all the declarations state loud and clear is the seceding states’ objections to the federal government not fulfilling its constitutional duty to execute fugitive slave laws, the election of a president who campaigned saying the Union could not survive “half slave and half free,” and their belief that the Republican Party’s determination to keep slavery out of new territories would eventually lead to abolition of the institution in their own states.
The passage which is perhaps most damning to the tariff theory comes from Georgia’s Declaration, which reads:
The party of Lincoln, called the Republican party, under its present name and organization, is of recent origin. It is admitted to be an anti-slavery party. While it attracts to itself by its creed the scattered advocates of exploded political heresies, of condemned theories in political economy, the advocates of commercial restrictions, of protection, of special privileges, of waste and corruption in the administration of Government, anti-slavery is its mission and its purpose. By anti-slavery it is made a power in the state.
The passage is accurate. The Republican Party was indeed comprised of a coalition between abolitionists and former members of the Whig Party, like Lincoln, who still sought to implement Henry Clay’s “American System” of protectionist tariffs, “internal improvements” (viz. “infrastructure”) and a central bank. But the Georgia Declaration dismisses this as merely an incidental observation and emphasizes the party’s opposition to slavery. One cannot help but conclude that Georgia, while objecting to the American System, was willing to tolerate it, but would not tolerate any threat to slavery.
Arkansas cited the Union’s attempt to coerce it into making war on the seceded states as its reason for leaving.
There is no reason to doubt Lincoln’s personal, philosophical opposition to slavery, but it wasn’t the reason he fought the Civil War. We know this because he said so, repeatedly. And it is by no means a leap, based on his lifelong political beliefs and what he said himself during his first inaugural, that the reason it was so important for him to “save the Union” was because he couldn’t pursue his big government agenda without the seceding states’ taxes. That’s quite a poor reason to start a war in which 600,000 to a million Americans are killed by their fellow Americans.
21st century Americans shouldn’t pick a side in the Civil War. Much like the brawl between the White Supremacists and Antifa in Charlottesville, Va., it was fought by two tyrannical powers for mostly evil purposes. The best we can do today is understand what really happened and work to rehabilitate the bedrock American principles of limited, decentralized government and the natural right of secession, good ideas given a bad name by Lincoln and the Confederates alike.
We’re fighting the Civil War again. Whenever both major parties drop any pretense of addressing the real problems facing American taxpayers, their constituents revert to having at each other in “the culture wars.” And no culture war would be complete without relitigating what should now be settled history: the […]