Fake News: The American Civil War Did NOT Start Because Of The Morrill Tariff Act And Slavery WAS The Main Factor

Fact Check

  • by: Alan Duke
Fake News: The American Civil War Did NOT Start Because Of The Morrill Tariff Act And Slavery WAS The Main Factor

Did the American Civil War start because southern states were angry because of the Morrill tariff enacted by President Abraham LIncoln and not because of a fight to preserve the institition of slavery? No, that's not true: The Morrill tariff was passed by congress AFTER seven states already seceded from the Union and BEFORE Lincoln was sworn in as president. It was signed into law by President James Buchanan on his last day in office. In fact, its passage was assured only by the withdrawal of the southern delegations to congress.

The revisionist history lesson has echoed through the decades since the war ended in 1865, but it has been revived on social media posts in recent years. One such attempt includes a poorly-produced video included in a post (archived here) published on in 2015 under the title "What people don't want you to know about the Civil War." The video opened (Keep in mind, we are fact checkers, not spell checkers):

One of the things that happend following the electon of Lincoln is Congress and Lincoln passed a tarriff known called the Morrill Tarriff"
The worst the country ever seen and forced many southerners into bankruptcy the tax was so bad it more than doubled the tax rate from 20% to 47%.
Though the Southern states only made up about 30% of the population they paid more than 80% of the tax.
Facing such a Tyranic government the south did the Legal act of Seceding from the Union in order to gain a government wich they would be represented in.

This is what social media users see:

There are many factual errors in this re-interpretation of history. One obvious mistake is that while the Morrill tariff bill pass the house in 1860, it was bottled up in a Democratic-controlled senate committe until after the Republicans gained the majority by the secession of seven southern states, starting with South Carolina on December, 20, 1860. The tariff which was, according to the video, the "worst the country ever seen and forced many southerners into bankruptcy," actually had no opportunity to impact southerners since they were gone from the Union before it could be collected. Tariff rates had been significantly higher in the 1820s and were at a low point in the 1850s. It was not until 1862, after the tariffs were raised again to pay for the war effort, that the rates became higher, according to a historical charts.

The video continued:

Following the withdraw of the South from the Union the only way the North could collect this tax is for them to take it by invading southern land and property and taking it by gunpoint.

So since the North was invading their country the South had no choice but to defend it and they fought hard and honorable.

Then after gaining a horrible reputation Lincoln tried to pin the while thing on slavery when it had nothing to do with it.

A confederate leader might be taken aback by the idea that protecting the institution of slavery was not central to their rebellion. Any doubters can read each of the declarations passed by five of the seceding states at this link.

The second sentence for Georgia's declaration reads:

For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery.

Mississippi's second and third sentence:

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth.

South Carolina's first paragraph:

The people of the State of South Carolina, in Convention assembled, on the 26th day of April, A.D., 1852, declared that the frequent violations of the Constitution of the United States, by the Federal Government, and its encroachments upon the reserved rights of the States, fully justified this State in then withdrawing from the Federal Union; but in deference to the opinions and wishes of the other slaveholding States, she forbore at that time to exercise this right. Since that time, these encroachments have continued to increase, and further forbearance ceases to be a virtue.

Texas declared in its third paragraph how it was welcomed into the confederacy:

She was received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery-- the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits-- a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time.

And Virginia withdrew from the Union in April 1861 (a month after the Morrill tariff was signed) with no mention of it, but these words about slave-holders being threatened by the federal government:

The people of Virginia, in their ratification of the Constitution of the United States of America, adopted by them in Convention on the twenty-fifth day of June, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty-eight, having declared that the powers granted under the said Constitution were derived from the people of the United States, and might be resumed whensoever the same should be perverted to their injury and oppression; and the Federal Government, having perverted said powers, not only to the injury of the people of Virginia, but to the oppression of the Southern Slaveholding States.

Lincoln did not write these declarations. He was not the one pointing to slavery as the trigger for the war. It was the southern leaders making the complaint.

The video then offers another time-worn myth, that only a small percentage of confederate soldiers owned a slave. This is purported evidence that they were not fighting to preserve the institution of slavery:

When the truth is that at the start of the War only 6% of Southerners owned slaves so tell me what the other 94% of them fighting for?
The sad truth is that Lincolns War cost us the lives of more than 600,000 Americans.
They were fighting for a just cause wich was against a unrepresentative government a tax that was killing their economy and for the denial for state rights were the main reasons for the south's fight for Independence.

To debunk this myth, we point you to statistics from the census of 1860, the last before the war began. More 32% of white families living in the future confederate states owned slaves. The percentages varied from state to state, depending on agriculture and development. In Arkansas, 20% of white families owned slaves, while in South Carolina nearly half -- 46% -- were slave owners. The rate was 49% in Mississippi. The video is very wrong with the 6% figure. See the full chart here.

As for the 68% of southerners whose families did not own slaves, their lives and economy were closely tied to the institution. The prospect of those 4 million slaves being freed from bondage was chilling to many of the 9 million whites in the confederate states, even if they were not owners themselves.

While there were significant economic arguments between northern and southern states, the expansion and preservation of slavery was the hottest fire. When compromises were offered in the years before and even days after the secession of southern states, the proposals centered on slavery issues, not tariffs.

The myth about tariff's influence on the secession of states grew partly out of a campaign by southern states to convince Britain to lend support to the confederacy during the war. British economic interests were opposed to higher American tariffs, as it made the American markets less lucrative for the British. Southerners made this argument to the British at the time. Read more about this here.

Another video misrepresenting history of the Morrill tariffs purports that Abraham Lincoln, in his first inaugural address, "stated his resolve in collecting these taxes no matter what. He said the power confided in me will be used to hold, occupy and possess the property in places belonging to the government and to collect the duties and imposts -- tariffs other words -- but beyond what way may be necessary for these objects, there'll be no invasion, no using force against or among the people anywhere."

Yes, Lincoln's first inaugural address did include a passage in which he stated his intention to collect "duties and imposts." But it was not in the context of the Morrill tariff alone -- which had been signed by his predecessor President Buchanan just the day before. It was in the context of all taxes and tariffs. It was one of the basic duties of a president. What was left out of the video were the words just ahead of that in which the new president offered that "there needs to be no bloodshed or violence, and there shall be none unless it be forced upon the national authority." It follows a much longer series of passages about slavery. Read the full Lincoln speech here.

In doing this there needs to be no bloodshed or violence, and there shall be none unless it be forced upon the national authority. The power confided to me will be used to hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the Government and to collect the duties and imposts; but beyond what may be necessary for these objects, there will be no invasion, no using of force against or among the people anywhere. Where hostility to the United States in any interior locality shall be so great and universal as to prevent competent resident citizens from holding the Federal offices, there will be no attempt to force obnoxious strangers among the people for that object. While the strict legal right may exist in the Government to enforce the exercise of these offices, the attempt to do so would be so irritating and so nearly impracticable withal that I deem it better to forego for the time the uses of such offices.

This video also claims the Morrill act was passed in 1959, two years earlier than it was actually adopted.

An important note about this author: Alan Duke is the great-grandson of Sgt. Major William Jasper Duke, CSA. Duke has been long familiar with the historical debate over the causes of the American Civil War. He asks that you actually read this story in full and click on the resource links before discarding its conclusions as the work of a carpetbagger or a scallywag.

  Alan Duke

Editor-in-Chief Alan Duke co-founded Lead Stories after ending a 26-year career with CNN, where he mainly covered entertainment, current affairs and politics. Duke closely covered domestic terrorism cases for CNN, including the Oklahoma City federal building bombing, the UNABOMBER and search for Southeast bomber Eric Robert Rudolph. CNN moved Duke to Los Angeles in 2009 to cover the entertainment beat. Duke also co-hosted a daily podcast with former HLN host Nancy Grace, "Crime Stories with Nancy Grace" and hosted the podcast series "Stan Lee's World: His Real Life Battle with Heroes & Villains." You'll also see Duke in many news documentaries, including on the Reelz channel, CNN and HLN.

Read more about or contact Alan Duke

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