The Morrill Tariff War
The United States House and Senate passed on March 2, 1861, a pro-slavery amendment by the required 2/3 vote which received the endorsement of newly elected President Abraham Lincoln. This would prohibit the United States government from ever interfering with the domestic institution of African slavery in any State. The amendment was ratified by at least three States prior to Lincoln’s ill-advised attempt to reinforce and supply Fort Sumter in mid-April, after which he began raising an army which a president is forbidden to do.
The amendment, as a clear assessment of northern political feeling at the time, indicates that the ensuing war was not prosecuted by the north for emancipation. If the American South’s only interest was “preserving slavery” it need only remain in the 1789 union and join the other States in ratifying the amendment.
At the very same time in early March the northern-dominated Congress passed the oppressive Morrill Tariff Act, which imposed a 40% sales tax on imported goods shipped primarily to the Southern States. This Act protected northern commercial interests.
The only way the American South could avoid the tariff was to withdraw from political union with the north, and initially the northern press supported this. Editor Horace Greeley wrote of “erring sisters” departing the union but entitled to determine their own political future – and not “pinned to the other States with a bayonet.”
In early March 1861 the Confederate States Congress convened and passed a minor 10% tariff which would bring the world’s shipping traffic to Southern ports instead of high-tariff northern ports. This sent a veritable shock wave through the commercial north as it would bankrupt those ports and business interests.
The north’s attitude of letting the “erring sisters” enjoy their political independence changed to invasion and conquest as the only remaining path to collecting their all-important tariff. Hence, all Southern ports from Virginia to Texas had to be brought under northern control.
As only Congress is authorized to raise and supply an army and would not convene until July, it looked the other way while State governors in the north supplied Lincoln with troops after the provocation at Fort Sumter.