#FlagMyths: 'The Civil War Was Fought Over... Tariffs'

In an occasional blog series I'm inaugurating here, I'd like to pull forward some debate that's happening in the comments and examine a variety of the myths and legends that surround the South's participation in the civil war.

From the comments section came this one from Claude Shannon:

The war was fought over money and power. In 1860, 80% of all federal taxes were paid for by the south. 95% of that money was spent on improving the north.

Now I'm not a history scholar, but I do get curious when things just kinda sound wrong.

First... even if we assume that's true (which, as you'll see later, I can't) I think the construct is disingenuous, as it suggests that "the South" had very little say in the matter and no recourse but secession given the rapacious chokehold that the North apparently had on the South in terms of political power and usurious taxation.

It's a dramatic picture, but there are a few caveats:

1.) Democrats (the party that included most all Southern politicians) controlled Congress leading up to the Civil War (they lost the House in 1859) and had a Democratic president in the "doughface" Buchanan. (The term being one that suggests a Northern with Southern sympathies.)

2.) The Tariff of 1857 was authored and supported by Southern legislators (the primary author was Virginia Senator Robert Mercer Taliaferro Hunter, who would later be pictured on the Confederate $10 bill) and it lowered tariffs to a level they hadn't hit in 50 years.

http://jacksonfreepress.com/users/photos/2015/jul/10/22076/">https://jacksonfreepress.media.clients.ellingtoncms.com/img/photos/2015/07/10/10_Confederate_States_of_America_1864_Banknote_obverse_t500x234.jpg?b24e7040cd39b4a5fad2ae90e77c3b305aef6473" alt="1864 Confederate $10 bill featured Confederate Senator Robert Mercer Taliaferro Hunter">

https://jacksonfreepress.media.clients.ellingtoncms.com/img/photos/2015/07/10/10_Confederate_States_of_America_1864_Banknote_obverse_t500x234.jpg?b24e7040cd39b4a5fad2ae90e77c3b305aef6473">1864 Confederate $10 bill featured Confederate Senator Robert Mercer Taliaferro Hunter by Todd Stauffer

Remember that through most of 1800-1860 there was no income tax on individuals and businesses or other taxes (sales, property) as we define them today -- Federal taxes were almost exclusively tariffs on imports. (The Nullification Crisis had come when tariffs were considerably higher in order to pay down debts from the War of 1812.)

So, "taxes" were considerably lower leading up to the war.

But then... if there's evidence that "The South" paid "80 percent" of those tariffs they'd managed to lower, I can't find it.

As noted http://deadconfederates.com/2013/02/24/walter-e-williams-polishes-the-turd-on-tariffs/">here, about 63% of Federal revenue was collected as tariffs on shipments that went through just the Port of New York alone. And those tariffs were collected from the merchants who imported them.

Aside from New York, there were certainly other ports in the North; so an argument that "The South" paid 80% of tariffs -- e.g. that 80% of imported and taxed goods went through Southern ports where the taxes were paid by Southern importers -- isn't correct.

(The tariffs were also protectionist in nature, and likely benefitted both the North and South as they made locally produced goods more attractive.)

If there's a more esoteric argument that says somehow the South ultimately bought 80% of those goods and therefore experienced the markup that came from them being taxes, I haven't seen it, but it would be interesting to read and parse.

One other point to make on tariffs -- the Southern states said little to nothing about tariffs when they seceded. The arguments presented, http://www.civilwarcauses.org/plat.htm">particularly in the Declarations, are primarily about slavery.

That suggests that tariffs weren't why the South seceded.

So... now let's flip that coin. Where does the number "95 percent" spent on improvements in the North come from? My guess, with all due respect, is "thin air."

In 1859, http://www.usfederalbudget.us/down1859_0.html">Federal spending was split about 46% on defense and 54% of domestic spending; in 1860, the split was roughly 37/63.

So we're down to 63 percent of the budget that could conceivably have been spend on "improvements in the North." Of course, just basic common sense suggest that it wasn't.

1.) There was federal debt at that time; some of the annual budget would go to debt service. The link above suggests that was 3-4% in 1859.

2.) It costs money to run government. Congress, courts, the post office, etc. (The link above to the US Federal Budget suggests that the postal service cost $16 million of the roughly $85 million budget in 1859, for instance, or about 19% of the total budget.)

3.) A chunk of any remaining money (~40% of the total budget in my calculations here) probably when to the major Federal mandate at that time (aside from defense) which would have been to manage territories that weren't officially states. So, again I'm spitballing here, but it seems most likely any Federal "improvements" made were in waterways, railroads and other transportation largel to encourage frontier immigration.

It's a tough number to get at without a great deal of study, I would imagine, but, regardless, there seems on the face of it to be no support for the idea than anything like 95% of tax revenues in those years went to "improvements in the North."

So... were usurious tariffs on the South that went almost exclusively to improvements in the North the the primary reason for the South's participation in the Civil War? No.

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