“Slavery – the one cause of the Civil War.” – John Stuart Mill, 1862
Can there be any doubt about it? Certainly the American Civil War was about the slavery issue… was it not? Well actually, one of the greatest popular myths in American history is that the Civil War was started because of the slavery issue and that Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, used a bloody struggle to sever the claims of bonding that shackled over 3 million black Americans. Right before the war, the South had all it could have wanted.
In 1860, Southerners controlled the Supreme Court and Lincoln and Congress were approving a constitutional amendment to keep slavery forever! So what happened?
We should rewind the clock back to the year 1832. By that year the national debt left from the War of 1812 had been re-paid and the South saw no need to keep up the high import taxes which appeared to only raise price tags for Southern consumers. Either the South had to pay high import taxes on imported goods or it purchased Northern manufactured goods at excessive prices. In either case, the South’s funds ended up in the North. To say the least, the South was not happy with this arrangement.
So, in 1832 a convention was hosted in South Carolina to get rid of these federal import taxes. The convention declared the tax was unconstitutional and gave the governor the power to to defy the enforcement of these taxes instituted by the federal government. It seemed like a civil war was in the works. Mild tempers won over, however, and the Great Compromise of 1833 reduced import taxes over the next few years to levels the South could tolerate.
Over the next few years, however, Northern commercial and manufacturing companies bullied through Congress more taxes that once again stressed Southern planters and allowed Northern Manufacturers to become rich once again. In 1850, John C. Calhoun, the South’s most outstanding spokesman, gave a speech to Congress. His speech listed three wrongs done to the South that could lead to secession from the Union and war. The first two involved fears about the gradual decline of power of the South in general and the states in particular.
The third, and really the only concrete grievance, concerned tax policy. In Calhoun’s view, federal import taxes was a targeted legislation against the South. Heavy taxes on the South created funds that were spent in the North. The focus of economic life in the United States was steadily changing strongly to the North. Calhoun spoke of secession if the taxes weren’t reduced. But what about the slaves? Well, in his run for the presidency in 1860, Lincoln steadily repeated he wouldn’t interfere with slavery in the South. Truly, most Northerners did not care much about enslaved blacks, any more than they worried about the Indian in the West or impoverished illiterate workers in factories. The majority of black slaves received substantially better quality treatment and more compassion than their counterparts in the North. Lincoln, actually, told Southern slave-owners that fugitive slaves would be returned. The Congress and then the Supreme Court (Dred Scott decision) continually acknowledged that slavery was not going anywhere.
But, as soon as Lincoln was elected and Congress assembled in 1861, they created new high import tariffs. Slavery wasn’t the problem – higher import taxes were. In his inaugural address Lincoln stated he would go get the customs in the South even if there was a secession!
Fort Sumter, near the beginning of the Charleston Harbor, began filling with Union troops to enforce the collection of the new taxes. The Civil War began in 1861 when South Carolinians shot at the federal garrison at Fort Sumter. The inevitable had been stewing for decades – but it was not over slavery. It was about taxes.
2 years later, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and then only following several military defeats, as the last resort to rally the North to a worthwhile cause. With respect to the slave issue – the majority of the North cared little about black people in bondage, any more than they cared about Native-Americans to the west and the poor uneducated peasants in the factories. Ironically, many black slaves received better treatment and more compassion than their impoverished counterparts in the North.
That’s it for the History of Taxes Series!