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.

Categories: The Collapse


JaimeInTexas · October 28, 2021 at 9:33 pm

Wow! The Corwin Amendment has been mentioned. I wonder how many folks are hearing of it for the first time. And Lincoln wa cwell aware of the proposed amendment despite Lincoln’s coyness in his 1st inaugural.
The North started getting apoplexy when Southern ports lowered their cost to about half of the North’s.
As to Northern concern for slaves, well, only after selling theirs first and as long as the freed slaves did not move the North.

E M Johnson · October 29, 2021 at 5:03 am

be nice if the truth could ever be freely and openly discussed in the public square… nahhhh this is luv mah freeeedum merica… never happen. but lets see if round 2 changes that

Russell G. · October 29, 2021 at 6:07 am

The above is mostly true. The abolitionists of the time can be compared to a Marxist branch of the “new” northern “industrial” Republican party, and they behaved much like Antifa. That’s why I laugh every time the current idiot Republicans brag that they own that “slavery thing.” Mobs, arson, killing, you name it, big time thugs. They, together with their members in Lincoln’s group/party (think Trump here) pushed Lincoln into his actions. They manipulated him. They lied to him, did not send some messages and/or report received messages to Lincoln. That’s not to say Lincoln was not a political weasel and scumbag who would sell out the constitution for points, because he was…he did. He was America’s Caesar (look that book title up).

I can’t find the online link…I know it’s out there because I downloaded the entire PDF way back, but here is one book that absolutely everyone should read. It is an analysis of events leading up to the American Civil War, all of the politics, all of the actual events, what every state was doing/thinking, etc. It goes way back to Kansas-Nebraska. It is recollections and observations from real people and newspaper sources. It pretty much contradicts today’s narrative by actual facts. Everything. It wasn’t written by someone who was contaminated by progressive narratives. And, all authors publishing after about 1940 were.

Fish, Carl Russel., The American Civil War: An Interpretation (Ed. William Ernest Smith, Ph.D., Longmans, Green and Co. 1937

Skyler the Weird · October 29, 2021 at 6:48 am

Goods imported from Europe were cheaper much like goods imported from Asia today. The North was trying to force the price of imported goods up to get the taxes and to make the price of comparable goods the same to protect Northern industries. The same protectionism we want today vs China.

Bad Dancer · October 29, 2021 at 7:18 am

Thank you for the very historically and period correct points. As a Southerner living in the Godless North there is a strange unwillingness to look at the events leading up to the war and the aftermath in historical context let alone discussing the industrialists both native and international that engineered the events leading up to the war and after it to reap massive profits.

Gangs of New York briefly addressed the draft riots and profiteering that went on. The TV show Copper has several plot lines revolving around businessmen playing both sides that are historically accurate or set up front businesses where they themselves were the owner of land and slaves while publicly condemning it.

The other Phil · October 29, 2021 at 7:40 am

Thank you for the thoughtful response. I tend to think that slavery is intertwined with the tariffs. Just one example is that the abolitionists were likely using the tariffs as a means to oppose slavery, by burdening the export of southern agricultural goods. Again, it’s difficult to know their true intentions because everyone avoided direct conversations about that “peculiar institution”.

I think another key factor is that the while the north began to industrialize, the south was forced to continue with the old agrarian way because much of their financial capital was tied up in the slaves. This widened the gap between the two sides. George Washington lamented this very situation, where the slave holders were themselves caught up in the system of bondage, and couldn’t realistically get out of the business without bankrupting themselves.

And, of course, the civil war resulted in a massive leap forward in the size and scope of the federal government, leading directly to our current situation with a tyrannical central government.

    Don Curton · October 29, 2021 at 11:06 am

    “couldn’t realistically get out of the business without bankrupting themselves”

    Don’t forget the question of what do you do with all the freed slaves? At one point they seriously considered loading them all up on boats and ship back to Africa.

    Divemedic · October 29, 2021 at 11:58 am

    I would disagree. The businesses in the 1860s who locked workers in the building and had children as young as 12 working in coal mines while paying them scrip that was redeemable only at the company store, then campaigned to prohibit blacks from having any rights is hardly indicative of any sort of SJW behavior

      The other Phil · October 29, 2021 at 12:47 pm

      Of course there were hypocrites all around. The British banned slavery in 1807, but were happy to keep buying cheap cotton from the southern states. But I think it’s a fact that virtually everyone in 1787, both north and south, thought that there was popular support to restrict slavery at the federal level, as evidenced by the southern states’ insistence on adding to the Constitution the 20-year ban on laws regarding that peculiar institution (Article 1, section 9). They all expected slavery to be outlawed soon after the ban expired in 1808. What changed was the introduction in 1792 of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, which dramatically increased the value of the slaves.

JaimeInTexas · October 29, 2021 at 8:05 am

Because someone has to say it – it was the War For Southern Independence.

    why · October 29, 2021 at 11:32 am

    This is the term I’ve used for decades, much to the chagrin of family.

    What most don’t realize is that the TRUE civil war (defined as 2 or more factions fighting over the same territory) was from 1775-1783. What most consider the “Revolutionary War.”

    Interesting enough, a Brit friend has a book called “The Colonial Wars – 1775-1815”. When I asked him about the Treaty of Paris (1783), he just smiled and said that was “just an interlude before we came back.” Curious how the “other side” views things…..

    John Wayne · October 29, 2021 at 4:39 pm

    I like to call it the War of Northern Aggression.

Jonathan · October 29, 2021 at 9:15 am

Thanks for the insightful knowledgeable article.
I knew tariffs were an issue, but not how big an issue they were, or how they were enforced.

JebTexas · October 29, 2021 at 10:37 pm

Thank you sir, for a concise summation of a very complex situation! My my Dad’s family was from Barnes Crossroads, Alabama, a civil war training camp near Dothan. My entire life I have been regaled with tales of The War of Northern Aggression, but your summation captures perfectly what I was taught.

SiG · October 30, 2021 at 11:01 am

Let me echo the thanks for your concise summation.

I’m continually amazed at how little I know about history.

    Brian_E · October 31, 2021 at 8:19 am

    …and unfortunately, most public schools do everything possible to make learning history difficult and uninteresting by only teaching dates, places, and names and/or events – with out ANY of the WHY, the Story that explains and connects.

Chris Mallory · October 30, 2021 at 8:56 pm

Remember too, many of those German immigrants were socialists or communists. Marx wrote Lincoln approving letters.

We should have sank every ship bringing those Irish, German, and later Jewish invaders to our shores. All immigration has been bad for America and Americans.

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