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.