Polemics & Exchanges

Slavery, or Not

Joseph E. Fallon’s assertion (in “The North’s Southern Cash Cow,” Vital Signs, June) that the reason the South seceded “was the tariff, not slavery” is simply wrong.  The loss of revenue from the American System of tariffs may have been one of the reasons the North waged war against the South.  But the South’s main reasons for secession were the North’s animus toward slavery, its failure to enforce fugitive-slave laws, and its determination that the institution not be expanded in the territories.  A cursory review of the declarations and ordinances of secession of the various Confederate states shows this to be true.  The main issue stated in them was clearly slavery; tariffs, internal improvements, etc., were hardly mentioned (Georgia’s declaration of secession being an exception).  For all the high-sounding language about states’ rights, the one they seemed to guard most jealously was the right to preserve the institution of chattel slavery.  The great debates and compromises of the 18th and 19th centuries were about slavery, not tariffs, and it is unlikely the South would ever have seceded over the issue of tariffs alone.  Would that they had seceded over an honorable states’ rights issue like the American System rather than the preservation of the odious institution of slavery.  One might be able to argue that the North started the war over tariffs, but not that the South seceded because of them.

        —Keith Burtner
Dallas, TX

Mr. Fallon Replies:

Mr. Burtner makes two important points.  First, he agrees with me that the North opposed Southern secession because of economic necessity.  Without the revenues from the South, the North would be a “failed state.”  This is established in the Northern editorials and U.S. government statistics that I cited.  Seventy-five percent of federal income derived from the South.

The second point is that the South’s motivation for secession was different.  It was about preserving the institution of slavery.  Mr. Burtner contends the central questions dividing the country and debated in Congress were the institution of slavery, enforcement of the fugitive-slave law, and the spread of slavery into the territories.  Here I must respectfully disagree.  Until the 1850’s, with the important exceptions of the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the admittance of Texas into the Union in 1845, the central issue dividing the country was the tariff.

The most important congressional consideration of the nature of the Union was the Hayne-Webster debates of January 1830, which were on the tariff.  The crisis over nullification and secession in the South from 1828 to 1833 was over the tariff.  The tariff was a constant source of discord between North and South.  When the Whigs representing Northern interests dominated Congress, tariffs were raised; when the Democrats representing Southern interests dominated Congress, tariffs were lowered.

The tariff was a triple taxation on the South.  The tariff imposed a tax on imported duties for the financial benefit of the North.  Those revenues disproportionately went to the North under the guise of “internal improvements.”  And shipping was a monopoly of the North that set the cost of Southern goods to its advantage.

In 1860, Lincoln and the Republicans ran on a platform demanding, not the abolition of slavery, but an increase of the tariff.  One of their first acts, once in power, was to increase the tariff by 70 percent.

Mr. Burtner is correct that the individual declarations and ordinances of secession by the Southern states do cite preservation of slavery as the paramount concern.  Why?  The North had an answer.  In 1862, the Boston periodical North American Review observed, “Slavery is not the cause of the rebellion . . . Slavery is the pretext on which the leaders of the rebellion rely, ‘to fire the Southern Heart’ and through which the greatest degree of unanimity can be produced.”

However, Southern editorials, like the Charleston Mercury, cited the tariff.  “The real causes of dissatisfaction in the South with the North, are in the unjust taxation and expenditure of the taxes by the Government of the United States.”

Was the institution of slavery in Southern states in jeopardy if they remained in the Union?  No.  To prevent Southern states from seceding, Congress passed what would have been the 13th Amendment (the Corwin Amendment) in March 1861.  The Corwin Amendment permanently enshrined slavery in those states and the Union.  It reads, “No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give to Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said State.”

Even with the Corwin Amendment, however, the future admittance of new states, most of them “Northern,” would make the South a minority in the Senate, as they were in the House.  They would not be able to prevent, lower, or repeal future tariffs.

The Southern states, therefore, declined the protection of the Corwin Amendment; they wanted a country of their own without the tariff and based on what the 1861 Boston Transcript editorial lamented would be “a system verging on free trade.”

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