Saturday, November 13, 2010

Grasping the past: the American Civil War - people do not secede over trade policy

I find having a perspective from Downunder can sometimes be a useful one to have on American debates. For example, the experience of Australian monetary policy makes the fears of inflation that seem to grip large slabs of American opinion just bizarre. (As such fears, as Scott Sumner points out, manage to both replicate 1930s debates and completely ignore current market signals, they become even more bizarre: if you want to follow Scott's excellent monetary economics blog, start with his FAQs.)

A strain of opinion I find more bizarre still is the claim that the American Civil War was not over slavery, it was “really” more over trade policy—in particular, tariffs. Actually, no: people do not secede, and go to war with their fellow countrymen, over tariffs—they simply do not matter that much.

How can I tell? Because the tariff issue bitterly divided Australian politics in the late C19th and early C20th. The great divide in politics was between free traders (who wished to use income and wealth taxes to fund government) and protectionists (who wanted to use tariffs as a protective device and prime source of government revenue). Not only did the issue never even remotely threaten to lead to war within or among the Australian colonies; while the debate was raging, Australia managed to federate to form a single Commonwealth of Australia.

Country bitterly divided by trade policy unifies!

Yet some Americans insist on trying to claim that no, the Civil War was not about slavery, but far more about trade policy. About what level tariffs would be (if any).

Let me think: slaves represented about one-third of the total wealth of the South. Freeing the slaves would wipe out at a stroke one-third of the total wealth of the South and reduce the value of the labour and vote of free (mostly white) men. Tariffs would reduce the income of exporters. Which one of these is an issue worth fighting over?

The question answer itself. People at the time knew what the real issue was. It was slavery. This reprinted opinion piece from 1860 makes this quite clear. Tariffs are worth but a passing mention, slavery and Westward expansion are the entire focus of the piece.

For if you add in the issue of who would get access to the new lands being opened up Westwards, the wealthiest group in the US, or the hard-scrabble migrants, then there are lots of issues worth fighting about: none of which hinge on tariffs and trade policy but all of which get their power from the implications for the institution of slavery.

(It was also why a lot of Amerindians supported the South: the last Confederate general to stand down was Brigadier-General Stand Watie principal chief of the Cherokee nation.)

In the words of the writer of 1860:
Republicans come to Washington not just with an eye to stopping the expansion of slavery. Their program also includes lower tariffs, which will increase the power of Northern manufacturers; support for the railroads, which will lead to the settlement of the West and to the creation of who knows how many anti-slavery states between the Mississippi and the Pacific; and unrestrained immigration. Eighty percent of new arrivals settle in the North, swelling its power with their labor and their votes. The Constitution may prevent the Republicans from abolishing slavery now, but Southerners are concerned that the great unsettled Dakota prairies will be carved into a dozen states that will become full of Republican-loving Italians and Poles and Irishmen and escapees from the revolutions of 1848. See what happens then.
But it all came down to the threat all this posed to slavery.

As the 1860 article reminded its readers, there was a long history of Southern agitation threatening secession prior to the election of Lincoln in November 1860:
Southerners, of course, have called this tune before. They threatened to bolt in 1820, floated the divisive theory of nullification in the 1830s, and angrily convened in Nashville in 1850.
One seen at the time as being all about the issue of slavery:
Whatever the time and whatever the provocation, the story has always been the same: threats, indignation and outrage, followed in the end by placations from the North and reconciliations that left the South wealthier and the institution of slavery more entrenched.
We can see this concern in the rhetoric coming out of the South at the time, as quoted in the 1860 piece:
Here [is] a present, living, mischievous fact. The Government of the Union is in the hands of the avowed enemies of one entire section. It is to be directed in hostility to the property of that section.
Or even grander claims:
Let the consequences be what they may — whether the Potomac is crimsoned in human gore, and Pennsylvania Avenue is paved ten fathoms deep with mangled bodies, or whether the last vestige of human liberty is swept from the face of the American continent, the South will never submit to such humiliation and degradation as the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln.
Dr Johnson used to wonder “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”. The observation of the servitude of others may make one’s own liberty sweeter, but thought of the power of the votes of former slaves if they were freed would surely be at least as much a concern.

One commenter in an online debate on the causes of the American Civil War put it pithily:
Regarding tariffs, etc., this could always be compromised over. Slavery couldn't. You were either for it or against it.
And the implication of the voting rights of freed slaves was a very real one. After all, Jim Crow was all about stopping people from voting, and justifying a sense of one’s own superior—and the excluded’s inferior—status that went with that.

The American Civil War was over slavery and its implications. People thought so at the time, all the serious scholarship since provides further confirmation of that. Trying to pretend it was more over trade policy is the worst kind of historical “revisionism”.

ADDENDA As commenter Fred notes below, Marx had some things to say at the time about pretending the issue was tariffs instead of slavery. Such a claim was evasion then and it is evasion now.


  1. Marx was pretty good on this:

  2. Yes, he had his moments. Then as now, rabbiting on about tariffs was a way of avoiding the dread issue of slavery.

  3. The American Civil War was over slavery and its implications.

    More precisely, it was about the power of the Plantation Aristocracy.

    The stereotype of recent times is that the "South", as a region, is peopled mostly by "white trash", "rednecks"; people with limited means and limited ambition, quaint in a way but not very productive. This is basically true. But it was not true in 1860.

    Most of the top-10 wealthiest states in 1860 were Southern states. In 1870, none of the top 10 were.

    As the South's economic system was based on slavery, they had no choice but to either defend it or essentially "abolish" their society. A truly terrible situation to be in.

    Abolition in one fell swoop confiscated the majority of the real assets -and- labor supply of an entire half of a nation, an economic-political collapse of a magnitude never seen, before or since, in North America. The Southern elite was decapitated, humiliated, and suddenly financially ruined. One-quarter of their young men died in the "Lost Cause"; more were maimed-- But the spiritual implications were far worse: Their own elite was destroyed.

    The South never recovered, even 150 years on. The archetypal Southerner of 1860 was the refined plantation aristocrat, this is what people aimed to strive to emulate; by the 1870s this figure had evaporated and the Ku Klux Klan terrorist was a kind of folkloric hero, the new object of white emulation. The radical white groups like the Klan filled a gap left by the ruination of the Plantation Aristocracy. (There was nothing like a "Klan" in 1860).

    It is a good thing that the Southern "Slave-Power" Aristocracy was defeated. But the issue -is- a little more complicated than "A group of bigots wanted to keep slavery and another group wanted to end slavery."

    In summary: The U.S. Civil War was the culmination of generations of antagonism between mutually-hostile elites, one in the Northeast and the other being the Lowland-Southern Plantation Aristocracy. Slavery was a pawn in this game.

  4. I basically agree with you, though I would be careful about the 'pawn' claim. There was a genuine moral revulsion against slavery which was an important part of the mix. But the Republicans did use "Slave Power" as a way of diverting working class voters from nativism.

    The Southern elite supported a Revolution that was ultimately incompatible with their own wealth and power. It just took several decades and 600,000 deaths for the incompatibility to be fully manifested.

    Another complication is that mass slavery has bad effects for long term social capital: the South suffers both from the abolition of slavery and the legacy of slavery.

  5. Lorenzo: Do you think that the decision to secede was a rational action given circumstances? What other choice did they have? (Putting aside "Slavery is wrong", which is beyond debate).

    Japan's decision to bomb Pearl Harbor comes to mind as a possible analog. Pop-history has it that the "Japs" did it "for no reason", other than they were aggressive warmongers who wanted to fight. This is irrational. In fact, the USA, Britain, France, and Holland were boycotting sales of oil to them from Spring '41 already, IIRC. Without oil, they were finished.

  6. Commenter Link at Coyote-Blog wrote:
    the Civil War was primarily a fight over the West and by extension — a fight over who would control the future.

    That is true: The U.S. Civil War was north vs. south superficially, but at its core it was really east "vs." west.

    I'd also note a great post by Lorenzo in that comment-thread. Your insights into the U.S. Civil War are deeper than the vast majority of Americans. I'm curious, as a foreigner, what's made you so interested in it?

  7. The institution of slavery was clearly ultimately incompatible with long-term membership of the Union. Taxing poorer folk to "buy out" the richest folk was not a political goer. So, the Southern decision to secede was rational, even if their war strategy was less so.

    The Japan analogy has legs, although the Western Allies were essentially over Japan's China adventure.(Even so, how attacking the only Great Power not at war, with a population twice yours and an economy several times larger than yours with a stronger tech base counts as "rational" is a bit beyond me.)

    Why the interest on my part? (Much of which comes from reading Kevin Philips' "The Cousins Wars" and Robert Fogel's "Without Consent or Contract".) A combination of an interest in military history and in the economics of bondage.