The only thing worse than a historian who calls himself a "Lincoln scholar" is a sociologist who does the same. This truth was on display recently in a January 9 Washington Post article entitled "Five Myths about Why the South Seceded" by one James W. Loewen.
In discussing the role of federal tariff policy in precipitating the War to Prevent Southern Independence Loewen is either grossly ignorant, or he is dishonest. He begins by referring to the 1828 Tariff of Abominations, which led to South Carolina's Ordinance of Nullification, whereby the state rightly condemned the 48 percent average tariff rate as a blatant act of plunder (mostly at the South's expense) and refused to collect it at Charleston Harbor. Loewen writes that "when, after South Carolina demanded the right to nullify federal laws or secede to protest, President Andrew Jackson threatened force." That much is true. "No state joined the movement, and South Carolina backed down," Loewen then writes. This is all false. It is not true that "no state joined the movement." As historian Chauncy Boucher wrote in The Nullification Controversy in South Carolina, Virginia, North Carolina, and Alabama joined South Carolina in publicly denouncing the Tariff of Abominations, while the Yankee bastions of Massachusetts, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Indiana, and New York responded with their own resolutions in support of political plunder through extortionate tariff rates.
Nor is it true to say that "South Carolina backed down." South Carolina and the Jackson administration reached a compromise in 1833: Jackson "backed down" by not following through with his threats to use force to collect the tariff, and South Carolina agreed to collect tariffs at a much lower rate. Jackson "backed down" as much (or more) as South Carolina did, but the Official Court Historian's History of the War, as expressed by Loewen, holds that only South Carolina retreated. The reason for this distortion of history is to spread the lie that tax protesters such as the South Carolina nullifiers, or the Whiskey Rebels of an earlier generation, have never successfully challenged the federal government's taxing "authority." But of course they have succeeded; The Whiskey Rebels ended up not paying the federal whisky tax, and the Tariff of Abominations was sharply reduced over a ten-year period.
Loewen next spreads an egregious falsehood about the tariff: "Tariffs were not an issue in 1860, and Southern states said nothing about them," he writes. "Why would they? Southerners had written the tariff of 1857, under which the nation was functioning. Its rates were lower than at any point since 1816." Every bit of this narrative is false.
Tariffs certainly were an issue in 1860. Lincoln's official campaign poster featured mug shots of himself and vice presidential candidate Hannibal Hamlin, above the campaign slogan, "Protection for Home Industry." (That is, high tariff rates to "protect home industry" from international competition). In a speech in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania ("Steeltown, U.S.A."), a hotbed of protectionist sentiment, Lincoln announced that no other issue was as important as raising the tariff rate. It is well known that Lincoln made skillful use of his lifelong protectionist credentials to win the support of the Pennsylvania delegation at the Republican convention of 1860, and he did sign ten tariff-increasing bills while in office. When he announced a naval blockade of the Southern ports during the first months of the war, he gave only one reason for the blockade: tariff collection.
As I have written numerous times, in his first inaugural address Lincoln announced that it was his duty "to collect the duties and imposts," and then threatened "force," "invasion" and "bloodshed" (his exact words) in any state that refused to collect the federal tariff, the average rate of which had just been doubled two days earlier. He was not going to "back down" to tax protesters in South Carolina or anywhere else, as Andrew Jackson had done.
The most egregious falsehood spread by Loewen is to say that the tariff that was in existence in 1860 was the 1857 tariff rate, which was in fact the lowest tariff rate of the entire nineteenth century. In his famous Tariff History of the United States economist Frank Taussig called the 1857 tariff the high water mark of free trade during that century. The Big Lie here is that Loewen makes no mention at all of the fact that the notorious Morrill Tariff, which more than doubled the average tariff rate (from 15% to 32.6% initially), was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives during the 1859–60 session of Congress, and was the cornerstone of the Republican Party's economic policy. It then passed the U.S. Senate, and was signed into law by President James Buchanan on March 2, 1861, two days before Lincoln's inauguration, where he threatened war on any state that failed to collect the new tax. At the time, the tariff accounted for at least 90 percent of all federal tax revenues. The Morrill Tariff therefore represented a more than doubling of the rate of federal taxation!
This threat to use "force" and "invasion" against sovereign states, by the way, was a threat to commit treason. Article 3, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution defines treason as follows: "Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort" (emphasis added). Lincoln followed through with his threat; his invasion of the Southern states was the very definition of treason under the Constitution.
The words "Morrill Tariff" do not appear anywhere in Loewen's Washington Post article despite the fact that he portrays himself as some kind of "Keeper of The Truth" regarding "Civil War" history. (And where were the Washington Post's "fact checkers?!) It was the Morrill Tariff that Lincoln referred to in his first inaugural address, not the much lower 1857 tariff, as Loewen falsely claims.
Abraham Lincoln was not the only American president who believed that the tariff was an important political issue in 1860. Contrary to Loewen's false claims, Jefferson Davis, like Lincoln, highlighted the tariff issue in his February 18, 1861 inaugural address, delivered in Montgomery, Alabama (From The Papers of Jefferson Davis, vol. 7, pp. 45–51). After announcing that the Confederate government was "anxious to cultivate peace and commerce with all nations" Davis said the following:
An agricultural people, whose chief interest is the export of a commodity required in every manufacturing country, our true policy is peace, and the freest trade, which our necessities will permit. It is alike our interest, and that of all those to whom we would sell and from whom we would buy, that there should be the fewest practicable restrictions upon the interchange of commodities. There can be but little rivalry between ours and any manufacturing or navigating community, such as the Northeastern States of the American Union. It must follow, therefore, that a mutual interest would invite good will and kind offices. If, however, passion or the lust of dominion should cloud the judgment or inflame the ambition of those States, we must prepare to meet the emergency . . .
Thus, Loewen's statement that the Southern states said "nothing" about tariff policy is unequivocally false. Jefferson Davis proclaimed here that the economy of the Confederacy would be based on free trade. Indeed, the Confederate Constitution of 1861 outlawed protectionist tariffs altogether, and only allowed for a modest "revenue tariff."
When Davis spoke of a "passion or the lust for dominion," he was referring to the constant attempts, for some seventy years, of the Northern Whig and Republican parties to plunder the South with the instrument of protectionist tariffs, as was attempted with the 1828 Tariff of Abominations. In other words, he declared here that, in his opinion, Lincoln was deadly serious (pun intended) about enforcing the newly-doubled rate of federal tariff taxation with a military invasion of the Southern states, and was preparing for war as a result. Contrary to Loewen's ignorant diatribe, both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis announced to the world in 1861 that tariff policy was indeed a paramount political issue: In their respective inaugural addresses, Lincoln threatened "invasion" of any state(s) that failed to collect his tariff, while Davis promised to defend against any such invasion.
Before the war, Northern newspapers associated with the Republican Party were editorializing in favor of naval bombardments of the Southern ports because they knew that the South was adopting free trade, while the North was moving in the direction of a 50% average tariff rate (which did in fact exist, more or less, from 1863 to 1913, when the federal income tax was adopted). These Republican party propagandists correctly understood that much of the trade of the world would enter the U.S. through Southern ports under such a scenario. Rather than adopting reasonable tariff rates themselves, they agitated for war on the South.
The tariff controversy was not the only cause of the war, and I have never argued that it was (despite lies to the contrary told about me by such people as historian Jeffrey Hummel). But it was obviously an important cause of the decades-long conflict between North and South.
The rest of Loewen's Washington Post article is about as accurate as his uninformed rantings about tariff policy. This was the Post's second attempt to "correct the record" of the "Civil War," which began 150 years ago this year, in the first nine days of 2011. The government's company newspaper is apparently terrified that the public will get wind of the truth and begin questioning the foundational myth of the federal Leviathan state.
Thomas J. DiLorenzo [send him mail] is professor of economics at Loyola College in Maryland and the author of The Real Lincoln; Lincoln Unmasked: What You're Not Supposed To Know about Dishonest Abe and How Capitalism Saved America. His latest book is Hamilton's Curse: How Jefferson's Archenemy Betrayed the American Revolution — And What It Means for America Today.