The outbreak of the American Civil War is now more than 150 years past. All the while, the question of what caused the conflict continues to spark disagreement, this despite a longstanding consensus among specialists that slavery – a cultural, political, ideological, and economic institution that permeated (and divided) mid-19th-century American society – was the primary cause of the war. One of the most egregious of the so-called Lost Cause narratives instead suggests that it was not slavery, but a protective tariff that sparked the Civil War.
On 2 March 1861, the Morrill Tariff was signed into law by outgoing Democratic President James Buchanan to protect northern infant industries. A pernicious lie quickly formed around the tariff’s passage, a lie suggesting that somehow this tariff had caused the US Civil War. By ignoring slavery’s central role in precipitating secession and Civil War, this tariff myth has survived in the United States for more than a century and a half – and needs to be debunked once and for all.
In trying to make their case but lacking adequate evidence for the 1860-61 period, “Lost Cause” advocates instead commonly hark back to the previously important role that another protective tariff had played in the 1832 Nullification Crisis. They then (mistakenly) assume the political scenario to have been the same three decades later – that southern secession from 1860-61 was but a replay of the divisive tariff politics of some thirty years before. From this faulty leap of logic, the argument then follows that the Republican Party’s legislative efforts on behalf of the Morrill Tariff from 1860 until its March 1861 passage became the primary reason for southern secession – and thus for causing the Civil War.
Because of the unfortunate timing of the Morrill Tariff’s passage – coinciding closely as it did with the secession of various southern states – this has remained perhaps the most tenacious myth surrounding the Civil War’s onset, and one that blatantly ignores the decidedly divisive role of slavery in mid-century American politics and society. Accordingly, the sesquicentennial of the Civil War has witnessed a slew of ahistorical tariff-centered explanations for the conflict’s causation, articles like “Protective Tariffs: The Primary Cause of the Civil War,” which appeared in Forbes Magazine in June 2013. Although the article was quickly pulled from the Forbes website following a rapid response from historians on Twitter (#twitterstorians), this particular piece of tariff fiction still exists on the author’s website as well as in a local Virginia newspaper, the Daily Progress.
Similar tariff-driven arguments for the war’s causation continue to be given voice in American news outlets, in viral Youtube videos, and even on a recent Daily Show episode: No, not by host Jon Stewart, but by that evening’s guest, Judge Andrew Napolitano, a FOX news analyst and NYC law professor. In response to Stewart’s question “Why did Abraham Lincoln start the Civil War?”, Napolitano answered: “Because he needed the tariffs from the southern states.”
The Civil War’s tariff myth has somehow survived for more than a century and a half in the United States. Let’s put an end to it.
In debunking the tariff myth, two key points quickly illustrate how the tariff issue was far from a cause of the Civil War:
1. The tariff issue, on those rare occasions in which it was even mentioned at all, was utterly overwhelmed by the issue of slavery within the South’s own secession conventions.
2. Precisely because southern states began seceding from December 1860 onwards, a number of southern senators had resigned that could otherwise have voted against the tariff bill. Had they not resigned, they would have had enough votes in the Senate to successfully block the tariff’s congressional passage.
In other words, far from causing the Civil War or secession, the Morrill Tariff of March 1861 became law as a result of southern secession.
The Tariff Myth’s Transatlantic Origins
Okay. So the Morrill Tariff clearly did not cause either secession or the Civil War. Then how and why did the myth arise?
As I have recently explored in the New York Times (“The Great Civil War Lie”) and at greater length in the Journal of the Civil War Era, the Civil War tariff myth first arose on the eve of the bill’s March 1861 passage. But the myth did not originate in the United States – it first took root in Free Trade England.
Southern congressmen had opposed the protectionist legislation, which is why it passed so easily after several southern states seceded in December 1860 and the first months of 1861. However, this coincidence of timing fed a mistaken inversion of causation among the British public, with many initially speculating that it was an underlying cause of secession, or at least that it impeded any chance of reunion.
The tariff thus played an integral role in confounding British opinion about the causes of southern secession, and in enhancing the possibility of British recognition of the Confederacy. And thus “across the pond” the myth was born that the the Morrill Tariff had caused the Civil War.
Nor was the tariff myth’s transatlantic conception immaculate. As I’ve previously noted, it was crafted by canny Southern agents in the hopes of confounding British public opinion so as to obtain British recognition of the Confederacy:
Pro-Southern business interests and journalists fed the myth that the war was over trade, not slavery – the better to win over people who might be appalled at siding with slave owners against the forces of abolition. On March 12, 1861, just 10 days after the Morrill Tariff had become law, The London Times gave editorial voice to the tariff lie. The newspaper pronounced that “Protection was quite as much a cause of the disruption of the Union as Slavery,” and remarked upon how the Morrill Tariff had “much changed the tone of public feeling” in favor of “the Secessionists.”
The pro-North magazine Fraser’s made the more accurate observation that the new Northern tariff had handily given the Confederacy “an ex post facto justification” for secession, but British newspapers would continue to give voice to the Morrill myth for many months to come.
Why was England so susceptible to this fiction? For one thing, the Union did not immediately declare itself on a crusade for abolition at the war’s outset. Instead, Northern politicians cited vague notions of “union” – which could easily sound like an effort to put a noble gloss on a crass commercial dispute.
It also helped that commerce was anything but crass in Britain. On the question of free trade, the British “are unanimous and fanatical,” as the abolitionist and laissez-faire advocate Richard Cobden pointed out in December 1861. The Morrill Tariff was pejoratively nicknamed the “Immoral” tariff by British wags. It was easy for them to see the South as a kindred oppressed spirit.
As a result, over the course of the first two years of the Civil War, the tariff myth grew in proportion and in popularity across the Atlantic, propagated by pro-South sympathizers and by the Confederate State Department.
Debunking the Tariff Myth
It would take the concerted efforts of abolitionists like John Stuart Mill, alongside Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, to debunk the Civil War tariff myth in Britain:
The Union soon obtained some much needed trans-Atlantic help from none other than the English liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill. By the beginning of 1862, the tariff myth had gained enough public traction to earn Mill’s intellectual ire, and he proved quite effective at voicing his opinion concerning slavery’s centrality to the conflict. He sought to refute this “theory in England, believed by some, half believed by many more … that, on the side of the North, the question is not one of slavery at all.”
Assuming this to be true, Mill asked, then “what are the Southern chiefs fighting about? Their apologists in England say that it is about tariffs, and similar trumpery.” Yet, Mill noted, the Southerners themselves “say nothing of the kind. They tell the world … that the object of the fight was slavery. … Slavery alone was thought of, alone talked of … the South separated on slavery, and proclaimed slavery as the one cause of separation.”
Mill concluded with a prediction that the Civil War would soon placate the abolitionists on both sides of the Atlantic. That, as the war progressed, “the contest would become distinctly an anti-slavery one,” and the tariff fable finally forgotten.
Mill’s prescient antislavery vision eventually begin to take hold in Britain, but only after Abraham Lincoln himself got involved in the trans-Atlantic fight for British hearts and minds when he put forth his Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863.
By February, Cobden happily observed how Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had aroused “our old anti-slavery feeling … and it has been gathering strength ever since.” […] And so, two years after the Morrill Tariff’s March 1861 passage, Northern antislavery advocates had finally exploded the transatlantic tariff myth.
It only took the British public about two years to see through the tariff myth, and to recognize the centrality of slavery. In contrast – and tragically – for more than 150 years afterwards the same tariff myth has somehow continued to survive in the United States.
Dr. Marc-William Palen is a historian at the University of Exeter. He is the author of “The Great Civil War Lie,” New York Times, 5 June 2013; “The Civil War’s Forgotten Transatlantic Tariff Debate and the Confederacy’s Free Trade Diplomacy,” Journal of the Civil War Era (March 2013); and The “Conspiracy” of Free Trade: The Anglo-American Struggle over Empire and Economic Globalisation, 1846-1896 (Cambridge University Press, 2016).
 “Protective Tariffs: Primary Cause of the Civil War,” Daily Progress, 23 June 2013. See, also, Mark Cheatham’s critical response to the Forbes piece, “Were Tariffs the Cause of the Civil War?“, showing how slavery overwhelmingly dominated state secessionist conventions; Phil Magness’s dismantling of both extreme ends of the debate in “Before You Start Claiming that Tariffs Caused the Civil War…” and “Did Tariffs Really Cause the Civil War? The Morrill Act at 150“; and Andy Hall, “Walter E. Williams Polishes the Turd on Tariffs.” You can read the secessionist ordinances in full here.
 (If you must), see, et al., “Tariffs, not Slavery, Precipitated the Civil War,” Baltimore Sun, 6 July 2013; “Understanding the Causes of the Uncivil War: A Brief Explanation of the Impact of the Morrill Tariff,” Asheville Tribune; “The True Cause of the Civil War,” Soda Head, 4 October 2010; “The Morrill Tariff Sparked War Between the States,” Madison Journal Today, 10 March 2014; “Real Causes of ‘The Civil War,’” Youtube; “Economic Reasons for the War,” TV Ad, Sons of Confederate Veterans.
 “The Great Civil War Lie,” New York Times, 5 June 2013.
 “The Great Civil War Lie,” New York Times, 5 June 2013.