The Real Cause of Secession
The protectionist Morrill Tariff passed the Senate on March 2, 1861, with many Southern members already having resigned their seats due to their States no longer being part of the United States. In response, Virginia Senator Roger Pryor delivered a blistering tirade against the Northern protectionists: “The importune protectionists of Pennsylvania . . . after higgling successively with every party for a stipend from the Treasury, at last caught the Republicans in a moment of exigent need, and from their lust for place, extorted the promise of a bounty to iron. This bill is the issue of a carnal coalition between the Abolitionists of New England and the protectionists of Pennsylvania.” The low, free trade tariff passed by the Confederate Congress would be ruinous to high-tariff Northern ports.
The Real Cause of Secession
“Southern agrarians had made known their intense hostility to protective [import] duties which they considered a burdensome tax upon their enterprise for the benefit of Northern manufacturers. It was the issue that drove South Carolina to the edge of rebellion thirty years before, and ever since 1846 Southern influence had kept tariff schedules at low levels.
But a tariff increase had been one of the major planks in the Republicans’ Chicago [party] platform. Its appeal had won them many votes in the East, especially in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Accordingly they were determined to redeem their pledge without delay; indeed they were warned repeatedly that failure to act would ruin them in Pennsylvania.
[Republican Simon] Cameron’s correspondence made it evident that conservative Pennsylvanians were determined to have a higher tariff regardless of the consequences; that this was not an issue which they regarded as properly open to compromise. Harry C. Carey of Philadelphia, the doctrinaire protectionist who was ready to concede almost anything else to the South, comforted his sympathizers with a unique diagnosis of the secession crisis which absolved them of any responsibility. In begging Northern congressmen to raise the tariff, he argued that free trade was actually “the cause of the discord with which we are troubled.” Only protection [of Northern manufacturers] could form a sound foundation for a prosperous and harmonious Union.
In any event, Republicans wasted no time in bringing the tariff question before Congress. A bill sponsored by Representative Justin S. Morrill of Vermont, which provided substantial protection for Pennsylvania iron and other Northern manufactures, had passed the House at the previous session. Cameron pressed for its consideration in the Senate as early as the second day of the new session.
Senator Hunter of Virginia, defending the rights of farmers and consumers, led the opposition to the new tariff . . . [as to] Virginia and the rest of the South this bill would be ruinous. “I know that we here are too weak to resist or to defend ourselves; those who sympathize with our wrongs are too weak to help us . . . No sir, this bill will pass. And let it pass into the statute-book; let it pass into history, that we may know how it is that the South has been dealt with when New England and Pennsylvania had the power to deal with her interests.”
A week later an amended version of the Morrill Tariff passed the Senate by a vote of 35 to 14, the opposition coming exclusively from Southerners and western Democrats. Representative [Daniel] Sickles of New York City reflected the views of the merchants when he protested that this bill would further alienate the South from the Union, for “our Southern friends perceive that . . . you intend . . . to tax them on the necessaries of life in order to enrich the manufacturing classes of the North . . .”
(And the War Came: The North and the Secession Crisis, 1860-1861, Kenneth M. Stampp, LSU Press, 1950, excerpts pp. 161-164)