After my last post, a question was asked:
why did the southern states secede after Lincoln’s election but BEFORE he took office?
If it was all about taxes, then what did Lincoln do or say prior to the election that changed the situation so dramatically that the south had to leave before he took office? Why not wait until he actually enacted some outrageous law before seceding?
The answer is longer than a comment, as entire books have been written on the subject. Let’s see if I can do a decent job at summing up the situation. In order to understand the answer to that question, you have to understand the political and economic situation.
The political situation at the time was nothing like today. Instead of the states being largely powerless political subdivisions of a larger nation, the states were more like the nations in the EU. Strong states, relatively weak central government.
The nation was divided between an industrial north and an agricultural south. Most major shipping ports were in the north, with the exceptions of Savannah, Charleston, Mobile, New Orleans, Brunswick, Wilmington, Pensacola, and Fernandina.
To get the economic picture, imagine that you are a business owner in the South. Most southern residents were, as agriculture was the major driver of the southern economy. Since 1828, any manufactured good that you needed to buy to run that business came with a 45% import tariff if it was from Europe. So you have to buy your manufactured goods from the north at highly inflated prices. At the time, the only means of taxation available to the Federal government were tariffs, and the south was paying 75% of all tax revenues collected by the union.
In addition, everything that you wanted to export to other countries was taxed at such high rates that you couldn’t sell your goods in Europe, and you are instead forced to sell your products to the North at whatever price they wish to pay.
Since 1833, the Federal authorities have been using military force by pressing northern militia units into service as a standing army to enforce these repressive taxes. That army established forts in the major ports, and tax collectors took the money for these taxes at gunpoint with armed troops supporting them.
The Dred Scott decision came in 1857. This ruling ensured that no black person could be a citizen, whether free or slave. This to me is the most solid evidence that concern for slaves was not a driver for the war. Why would any person in the union go to war to free slaves when racism was so rampant that those who were freed could never be citizens?
Also in 1857, tax rates were lowered
In the midst of this, northern states were helping slaves escape and then freeing them as soon as they touched northern soil. The south saw this as a violation of Article IV, section 2 of the Constitution. They felt that the north was using economic power to control the courts and ignore the rights of southern states.
Irish, German, and Jewish immigrants sought new lives and economic opportunities in the US, mostly settling in the industrial north and working for nearly nothing. By 1860, nearly one out of every eight Americans had been born outside of the United States. This gave the northern states more electoral votes, more congressional representatives, and thus more power.
In 1860, as the election season was underway, Lincoln campaigned not on ending slavery, even though he was known to be an abolitionist. He campaigned on a promise to protect northern business interests. That meant more taxes.
Lincoln was morally opposed to slavery, stating years earlier that slavery was, “an unqualified evil to the negro, the white man, and the State,” but he knew that this view was not going to win him the presidency. During his campaign, Lincoln repeatedly stated that he had no intention to challenge slavery, but did advocate for the high import taxes which benefitted his sponsors in the North.
After all of that, Lincoln won just 40 percent of the popular vote, but won 180 electoral votes. This was due to the fact that the north had many more citizens than did the south (thanks to the 3/5 compromise) and dominated the south in the electoral college. The Southern vote was split between Breckenridge who won 72 electoral votes and Bell who won 39 electoral votes.
The twelfth of the seventeen platforms of Lincoln’s campaign laid out the future of tariffs:
That, while providing revenue for the support of the general government by duties upon imports, sound policy requires such an adjustment of these imports as to encourage the development of the industrial interests of the whole country; and we commend that policy of national exchanges, which secures to the workingmen liberal wages, to agriculture remunerative prices, to mechanics and manufacturers an adequate reward for their skill, labor, and enterprise, and to the nation commercial prosperity and independence.
The southern states knew what was coming. They already saw the north freely violating more than one Article of the Constitution by ignoring Article IV, maintaining a standing Army, and laying an unapportioned tax. They felt that the deck was being stacked against them. They also knew that the Republicans would do all it could to prevent secession, so they felt that seceding before Lincoln took office was the best course of action. In fact, the third of the seventeen platforms opposed disunion.
Had the only (or even main) issue been slavery, the Corwin Amendment would have placated the south. Already passed by Congress, the Corwin Amendment would have been the Thirteenth Amendment and would have permanently put slavery into the Constitution. It was sent to the states for ratification, and of this Amendment, Lincoln had this to say:
I understand a proposed amendment to the Constitution—which amendment, however, I have not seen—has passed Congress, to the effect that the Federal Government shall never interfere with the domestic institutions of the States, including that of persons held to service … holding such a provision to now be implied constitutional law, I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable.
While it is true that Lincoln and the Republican party were opposed to slavery, they knew that it was not a winning issue and were more concerned with defending the business interests of the north than they were of abolishing slavery.
Don’t think that employees of large businesses were in any way opposed to the idea of workers as slaves. Remember that working conditions then were poor, with a six day, seventy hour work week being common, with many employees being paid in scrip that could only be spent in the company store. Don’t think that the north actually cared about the black man- remember that blacks couldn’t ever become citizens, so this wasn’t about some altruistic search for equality.
Even Charles Dickens knew that the war between the states was more about money than it was about slavery:
The Northern onslaught upon slavery was no more than a piece of specious humbug designed to conceal its desire for economic control of the Southern states.– Charles Dickens
I know this seems disjointed, but the issue was just as complicated and nuanced as politics today. I hate the way that our current history books have made it seem as though this was a simple, cut and dried issue.