The Causes of the “Civil War” in the Words of Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis
By Thomas DiLorenzo
November 30, 2017
“When [the states] entered into the Union of 1789, it was with the undeniable recognition of the power of the people to resume the authority delegated for the purposes of that government, whenever in their opinion, its functions were perverted and its ends defeated . . . the sovereign States here represented have seceded from that Union, and it is a gross abuse of language to denominate the act rebellion or revolution.”
–Jefferson Davis, First Inaugural Address, Montgomery, Alabama, February 1861.
“That . . . the Union is perpetual [is] confirmed by the history of the Union itself. The Union is much older than the Constitution. It was formed, in fact, by the Articles of Association in 1774. It was matured and continued by the Declaration of Independence in 1776. It was further matured, and the faith of all the thirteen States expressly plighted and engaged that it should be perpetual . . . . It follows from these views that no State . . . can lawfully get out of the Union . . . and that acts . . . against the authority of the United States are insurrectionary or revolutionary . . .”
–Abraham Lincoln, First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861.
These two statements by Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis from their respective first inaugural addresses highlight perhaps the main cause of the War to Prevent Southern Independence: Davis believed, as the founding fathers did, that the union of the states was a voluntary union created when the free, independent, and sovereign states ratified the Constitution, as directed by Article 7 of the Constitution; Lincoln asserted that it was not voluntary, and was more like what future generations would come to know as the Soviet Union – held together by force and bloodshed. Murray Rothbard mocked Lincoln’s theory of the involuntary American union a “one-way Venus flytrap” theory of the union in his essay, “Just War.” Indeed, in the same speech Lincoln used the words “invasion” and “bloodshed” to describe what would happen in any state that left his “perpetual” union. His position was that after fighting a long war of secession from the tyrannical British empire, the founders turned around and created a nearly identical, British-style centralized state from which there could never be any escape.
As important as this issue was, Jefferson Davis announced to the world that an equally if not more important issue was the attempt of the North to finally use the powers of the national state to plunder the South, with a protectionist tariff being its primary tool of plunder. As he stated in his first inaugural address, the Southern people were “anxious to cultivate peace and commerce with all nations.” However:
“There can be no cause to doubt that the courage and patriotism of the people of the Confederate States will be found equal to any measure of defence which may be required for their security. Devoted to agricultural pursuits, their chief interest is the export of a commodity required in every manufacturing country. Our policy is peace, and the freest trade 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 interchange of commodities. There can be but little rivalry between us and any manufacturing or navigating community, such as the Northwestern States of the American Union.”
“It must follow, therefore, that mutual interest would invite good will and kindness between them and us. If, however, passion or lust of domination should cloud the judgment and inflame the ambition of these States, we must prepare to meet the emergency, and maintain, by the final arbitrament of the sword, the position we have assumed among the nations of the earth.”
To put these statements into context, it is important to understand the North was in the process of more than doubling the average tariff rate on imports at a time when at least 90 percent of all federal tax revenue came from tariffs on imports. The rate of federal taxation was about to more than double (from 15% to 32.7%), as it did on March 2, 1861 when President James Buchanan, the Pennsylvania protectionist, signed the Morrill Tariff into law, a law that was relentlessly promoted by Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party. (The Pennsylvania delegation was a key to Lincoln’s nomination. Before the Republican convention he sent a private emissary, Judge David Davis, to Pennsylvania with original copies of all of his speeches in defense of protectionist tariffs over the previous twenty-five years in order to convince the Pennsylvania protectionists, led by steel manufacturer/legislator Thaddeus Stevens, that he was their man. He won over the Pennsylvania delegation and he later appointed Davis to the Supreme Court).
Ever since the Tariff of 1824, and the even more protectionist 1828 “Tariff of Abominations,” with a 48% average tariff rate, the South had been protesting and even threatening nullification and secession over protectionist plunder, as South Carolina did in 1833 when it formally nullified the “Tariff of Abominations.” The votes in Congress on these tariffs was completely lopsided in terms of Northern support and Southern opposition – although there were small minorities of Southern protectionists and Northern free traders, especially in New York City in the latter case.
The South, like the Mid-West, was an agricultural society that was being plundered twice by protection tariffs: Once by paying higher prices for “protected” manufactured goods, and a second time by reduced exports after the high tariffs impoverished their European customers who were prohibited from selling in the U.S. by the high tariffs. Most of the South’s agricultural produce –as much as 75% or so in some years — was sold in Europe.
South Carolina nullified the Tariff of Abominations and forced President Andrew Jackson to agree to a lower, compromise tariff rate that was phased in over ten years, beginning in 1833. The North did not yet have the political clout to plunder the South, an act that many Southern statesmen considered to be a gross violation of the constitutional contract that justified secession. But by 1861 the population growth in the North, and the addition of new Northern states, had given the North enough political power to finally plunder the agricultural South and Mid-West with protectionist tariffs. The Morrill Tariff had passed the House of Representatives during the 1859-’60 session, long before any Southern state seceded, and the writing was on the wall that it was only a matter of time before the U.S. Senate would follow suit.
The Confederate Constitution outlawed protectionist tariffs altogether, calling only for a modest “revenue tariff” of ten percent or so. This so horrified the “Party of Great Moral Causes” that Republican Party-affiliated newspapers in the North were calling for the bombardment of Southern ports before the war. With a Northern tariff in the 50% range (where it would be after Lincoln signed ten tariff-raising pieces of legislation, and remained in that range for the succeeding fifty years) compared to the Southern 10% average tariff rate, they understood that much of the trade of the world would go through Southern, not Northern, ports and to them, that was cause for war. “We now have the votes and we intend to plunder you mercilessly; if you resist we will invade, conquer, and subjugate you” is essentially what the North, with its election of lifelong protectionist Abraham Lincoln as a sectional president, was saying.
Neither Lincoln nor the Republican party opposed Southern slavery during the 1860 campaign. They only opposed the extension of slavery into the new territories. This was not because of any concern for the slaves, but was part of their strategy of perpetual plunder. Mid-West farmers, like Southern farmers, were harshly discriminated against by protectionist tariffs. They, too, were double-taxed by protectionism. This is why the Mid-West (called “the North-West” in the 1860s) provided serious antebellum resistance to the Yankee scheme of protectionist plunder. (The Mid-West also provided some of the most effective opposition to the Lincoln regime during the war, being the home of the “Copperheads,” so named as a slanderous term by the Republican Party). This opposition was watered down, however, when the Republican Party championed the policy of preventing slavery in the territories, preserving them “for free white labor” in the words of Abraham Lincoln himself. Mid-Westerners were as racist as anyone else in the mid nineteenth century, and the overwhelming majority of them did not want black people, free or slave, living among them. Lincoln’s own state of Illinois had amended its constitution in 1848 to prohibit the immigration of free blacks into the state, and Lincoln himself was a “manager” of the Illinois Colonization Society, which used state tax dollars to deport the small number of free blacks who resided in the state.
White laborers and farm hands also did not want competition for their jobs by blacks, free or slave, and the Republican Party was happy to pander to them. Then there is the “problem” of slaves in the Territories inflating the congressional representation of the Democratic Party because of the Three-Fifths Clause of the Constitution. With more Democratic representation protectionist plunder would become that much more difficult to achieve.
This strategy was explained in the Report of the Committee on Foreign Affairs by the Confederate States of America on September 4, 1861:
“Whilst the people of the North-West, being like the people of the South, an agricultural people, were generally opposed to the protective tariff policy – the grand sectionalizing instrumentality of the North. They were allies of the South, to defeat this policy. Hence it has been only partially, and occasionally successful. To make it complete, and to render the North omnipotent to rule the South, the division in the North must be healed. To accomplish this object, and to sectionalize the North, the agitation concerning African slavery in the South was commenced . . . . Accordingly, after the overthrow of the Tariff of 1828 [i.e., the Tariff of Abominations], by the resistance of South Carolina in 1833, the agitation concerning the institution of Southern slavery . . . was immediately commenced in the Congress of the United States . . . . The first fruit of [this] sectional despotism . . . was the tariff lately passed by the Congress of the United States. By this tariff the protective policy is renewed in its most odious and oppressive forms, and the agricultural States are made tributaries to the manufacturing States.”
Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address: “Pay Up or Die!”
Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address was arguably the strongest defense of Southern slavery ever made by an American politician. He began by saying that in “nearly all the published speeches” he had made he declared that “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists.” I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” He next quoted the Republican Party Platform of 1860, which he fully endorsed, that proclaimed that “the maintenance inviolate of the rights of the States, and especially the right of each State to order and control its own domestic institutions . . . is essential to that balance of power on which the perfection and endurance of our political fabric depend . . .” (emphasis added). “Domestic institutions” meant slavery.
Lincoln then pledged to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act, which he in fact did during his administration, returning dozens of runaway slaves to their “owners.” Most importantly, seven paragraphs from the end of his speech he endorsed the Corwin Amendment to the Constitution, which had already passed the House and Senate and was ratified by several states. This “first thirteenth amendment” would prohibit the federal government from ever interfering with Southern slavery. It would have enshrined slavery explicitly in the text of the Constitution. Lincoln stated in the same paragraph that he believed slavery was already constitutional, but that he had “no objection to its being made express and irrevocable.”
In her book Team of Rivals Doris Kearns-Goodwin uses primary sources to document that the source of the amendment was not really Ohio Congressman Thomas Corwin but Abraham Lincoln who, after he was elected but before he was inaugurated, instructed William Seward to get the amendment through the Northern-dominated U.S. Senate, which he did. Other Republicans saw to it that the Northern-dominated House of Representatives would also vote in favor of it.
So on the day he was inaugurated Abraham Lincoln offered the strongest, most uncompromising defense of Southern slavery imaginable. He effectively announced to the world that if the Southern states remained in the union and submitted to being plundered by the Yankee-dominated protectionist empire, then nothing would ever be done about slavery by the U.S. government.
The U.S. Senate’s War Aims Resolution later echoed Lincoln’s words that the war was NOT about slavery but about “saving the union,” a contention that Lincoln repeated many times, including in his famous letter to New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley in which he said publicly once again that this purpose was to “save the union” and not to do anything about slavery. In reality Lincoln’s regime utterly destroyed the voluntary union of the founding fathers. By “saving the union” they meant forcing the South to submit to protectionist plunder, not preserving the highly decentralized, voluntary union of the founding generation based on such principles as federalism and subsidiarity.
In dramatic contrast, on the issue of tariff collection Abraham Lincoln was violently uncompromising. “Nothing” is more important than passing the Morrill Tariff, he had announced to a Pennsylvania audience a few weeks earlier. Nothing. In his first inaugural address he stated in the eighteenth paragraph that “[T]here needs to be no bloodshed or violence, and there shall be none unless it be forced upon the national authority.” What could he have been talking about? What would cause “the national authority” to commit acts of “bloodshed” and “violence” against its own American citizens? Doesn’t the president take an oath in which he promises to defend the constitutional liberties of American citizens? How would ordering acts of “bloodshed” and “violence” against them be consistent with the presidential oath of office which he had just taken, with his atheistic hand on a Bible, just moments earlier?
Lincoln explained in the next sentence: “The power confided in me will be used to hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the Government, and to collect the duties and imposts; but beyond what may be necessary for these objects, there will be no invasion, no using force against or among the people anywhere” (emphasis added). The “duties and imposts” he referred to were the tariffs to be collected under the new Morrill Tariff law. If there was to be a war, he said, the cause of the war would in effect be the refusal of the Southern states to submit to being plundered by the newly-doubled federal tariff tax, a policy that the South had been periodically threatening nullification and secession over for the previous thirty-three years.
In essence, Abraham Lincoln was announcing to the world that he would not back down to Southern secessionists as President Andrew Jackson had done by acquiescing in a negotiated reduction of the Tariff of Abominations (negotiated by Lincoln’s lifelong political idol and inspiration, Henry Clay, the author of the Tariff of Abominations in the first place!). He promised “violence,” “bloodshed,” and war over tariff collection, and he kept his promise.
Thomas J. DiLorenzo is professor of economics at Loyola University in Maryland and the author of The Real Lincoln.
Copyright .© Paul Craig Roberts 2016