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civil war

John C. Calhoun

A hundred and fifty years ago, our country was in the midst of the most difficult and deadly experience of its history, the Civil War, in which 660,000 would perish.

How had it come to be that the country was in Lincoln’s words, “half slave, half free,” and because of it, inflicting on itself such terrible blows?

A year ago in this space I had opportunity to tout the work of the young historian par excellence Phillip W. Magness, whose dissertation on tariffs in the nineteenth century is changing settled narratives of American political economy. Reading further into Magness’s work has begun to convince me that we need a new comprehensive explanation of why North and South developed so differently from 1815 to 1861 – so differently, that there had to be a most terrible war to settle things.

We begin in 1815. In that year, the one in which Napoleon met his Waterloo in Europe – the United States began to implement what came to be known as the “American System,” chiefly under the auspices of Representative Henry Clay of Kentucky.

The American System was a scheme to wean the nation off of Europe economically, if not politically and socially. The idea was that Europe had become so volatile in recent decades – what with the French Revolution, the Napoleonic wars, and the embargo battles that realized themselves on these shores in the War of 1812 – that it was best to part ways with the place once and for all.

The federal government set up a big protective tariff on imported goods and used the revenue to build a transportation network beyond the Appalachian mountains, so that the country might soon become self-sufficient economically.

From the outset, the tariff was terribly unpopular in many places in the South and West, no more than in South Carolina. The problem in South Carolina was that the economy was undiversified. Mass agricultural goods (chiefly cotton and rice) and little else were produced. South Carolinians were thus at the mercy of the market to buy everything else with cash.

But the tariff ensured that no cheap goods would come into the country. The standard of living in South Carolina dropped, while of necessity purchases were made that enriched expensive domestic producers in the Northern United States.

South Carolina and its favorite political son, Vice President and later Senator John C. Calhoun, went to the wall against the tariff in the 1832, “nullifying” it within state borders – as if that were anywhere near constitutional. Federal power stopped this transgression of the law, and the tariff status quo was maintained with only slight modification.

Thus did South Carolina, and the South as a whole, bear little chance of diversifying its economy from the American System days onward. If not just consumer goods, but especially capital goods – which industrializing Europe was getting excellent at producing – were going to be had only at dear prices, the Southern economy never stood to develop out of its odd cash-crop emphasis.

Calhoun became one of the gravest defenders of slavery in the years before his death in 1850. But it is worth wondering why Calhoun was so little preoccupied with slavery beforehand, when the tariff consumed his thoughts. Perhaps the tariff made slavery economically feasible.

Surely the tariff created a high bar for the importation of the kind of machines and devices that would have made the industrialization of the South possible. As has long been a verity in economic history, the chattel slavery that characterized the South was incompatible with an industrial workforce, which is optimally productive as wage-labor.

Furthermore, it can have been no accident that Indian removal from the South coincided with the tariff battles in the 1830s, in that Southerners were going to need more cheap land if coastline trade and manufacture were going to face impediments to development.

The great irony in all this is that the whole American System was based on a premise that turned out to be false: the supposition that Europe would continue in its volatile ways. From 1815 to 1914, Europe in fact enjoyed the greatest run of general peace and prosperity in its history. There was no reason for the U.S. to wall itself off from European influence after 1815. Yet this is exactly what it strove to do.

The two societies that met each other on the battlefields of the Civil War were very different, to be sure: one of the reasons the North was able to grind out a victory. It is likely that had the tariff been repealed or substantially reduced in the 1830s, as Calhoun desired, the nation’s economy would have developed in tandem across its geographical regions. If such a thing had happened, slavery may well have faded away with the decades, as the industrial revolution bore along North and South alike.

Books on the topic discussed in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreOriginally published at Forbes.com the essay is reprinted here with gracious permission of Brian Domitrovic.

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8 replies to this post
  1. I appreciate your scholarship and intentions, but economic determinism neither caused slavery nor could it ever have put an end to it.

    The Eurppean-American doesn't have to apologize for slavery, it's as old as mankind. We didn't invent it or perfect it- but we did abolish it. Not just here but around the globe.

    Slavery was never a socio-economic institution. Slavery is so old that as far back as we can trace history we find it firmly established. Slavery was very adaptable, it survived many different social orders and economic conditions and systems. Slavery had little to do with economics. Slavery was fundamentally about Dominance and Submission. These are fundamental human traits that do not require economic imperatives to become institutionalized. Slavery was (and to some extent still is) at root, a human behavior.

    Only a fundamental change in human behavior could have brought about the abolition of slavery, a force strong enough to slowly overcome and change an aspect within our basic nature. That force was Christianity.

    That's why the change is permanent. We will never go back to human slavery any more thane will go back to human sacrifice. Christianity wrought a fundamental change in human nature. It was the Christian "colonists" the British who put a stop to the centuries old and pernicious slave trade of the Arabs. And that miraculous change was forced upon the house of Saudi in the 20th century.

    Slavery vexed the minds and hearts of our forefathers, not because they were white European, but because they were embedded within Christian culture. Even a deist like Jefferson was vexed by the institution.

    There was never an economic imperative to slavery. Slavery existed because it was embedded in our human nature. Only a force stronger than ourselves could ever have put an end to it. Again, that force was Christianity.

  2. Calhoun defended slavery for his entire career, not just at the end. His argument over nullification in 1832 was ostensibly about tariffs but it was really about slavery. Jackson was an unapologetic slaveholder, but he also respected the Constitution, which had given Congress the power to prohibit the import of slaves after 1808. Calhoun was a clever enough politician to know that he could never establish the principle of "states rights" over the question of slavery so he chose the question of tariffs instead. His attempt failed, but he would have had even less success challenging the restrictions on the importation of slaves. The United States Constitution had accepted slavery as part of the status quo; but there had been – from the beginning of the Republic – a clear understanding that the slave trade was to be ended as soon as allowed; and there was general political agreement – North and South – over the issue. Congress enacted "An Act to prohibit the importation of slaves into any port or place within the jurisdiction of the United States, from and after the first day of January, in the year of our Lord, 1808" and President Jefferson, also a slaveholder, signed it into law in 1807. The act not only prohibited the importation of slaves but also regulated all coastal trade to enforce the Slave Trade Act of 1794 which prohibited "the making, loading, outfitting, equipping, or dispatching of any ship to be used in the trade of slaves".
    Jackson did not evict the Cherokees because he wanted to expand the territory for slavery; there was hardly any need. The Cherokees themselves owned slaves. What Jackson wanted was expulsion of ALL Indians; what made his unconstitutional act politically palatable was the presumption that the Cherokee lands had gold in them. The opportunities to use more slaves profitably were not to be found in the Atlantic coast but in the west – in Jackson's own Tennessee and in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. The Constitution made no prohibitions on the internal trade in slaves; and by 1840 even Calhoun realized that his constituents could make just as much money sending their slaves to Jefferson Davis' plantation as they could shipping them overseas. Calhoun became increasingly vehement on the subject of slavery because he and his political allies were concerned that their new markets to the west would be cut off by internal restrictions on the slave trade. South Carolina's main "crop" by 1840 was not cotton or rice or indigo but slaves themselves. Tariffs were a secondary issue. In his speeches to the Senate
    Calhoun did not defend slavery; he asserted that it was, in fact, the superior form of economics. Both the Greeks and Romans – the authors of Republican government – had relied on slavery; without it the American republic would fall. When they listened to these orations, his colleagues understood that Calhoun was not only giving them a history lesson but also defending his constituents' livelihoods. Tariffs were an important issue, but they were one where the interests of the importers were balanced against the domestic producers. Tariff rates went down as well as up (the Walker tariff is the most important example); it was only after the Civil War had started that the "wall" of the Morrill tariff was erected. If trade had been as restricted as the article suggests, New Orleans would not have been the country's fastest growing city in 1850. Thanks to the internal slave trade, it was.

  3. Domitrovic writes that "The American System was a scheme to wean the nation off of Europe economically, if not politically and socially. The idea was that Europe had become so volatile in recent decades – what with the French Revolution, the Napoleonic wars, and the embargo battles that realized themselves on these shores in the War of 1812 – that it was best to part ways with the place once and for all." Come on now. Was it all that altruistic, or perhaps it was a scheme to line the pockets of Northern capitalists at the expense of the American consumer, North, South, and West? I'm amazed how altruism for the "common good" is assumed when considering Yankee political class motives vis-a-vis the slaveholding South. Moreover, Calhoun was correct. The tariff should have been nullified as counter to Article I, section 9, "No Preference shall be given by any regulation of Commerce or Revenue to the Ports of one State over those of another . ." Is it plausible that the Constitution would have been ratified if the Constitution explicitly stated that the Southern States were to be disprotionately the cash "revenue" cow for New England capitalists? I don't think so.

  4. Jackson's support came from the mid-Atlantic and the West, not from any "northern capitalists". Here is the vote on the Tariff of Abominations:
    House Vote on Tariff of 1828
    For Against
    New England 16 23
    Middle States (Mid-Atlantic) 57 11
    West (Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri) 17 1
    South (including Louisiana) 3 50
    Southwest (Tennessee, Kentucky) 12 9
    Total 105 94
    New England and the South both opposed the tariff; the rest of the country supported it.

  5. House Vote on Tariff of 1828 For Against
    New England 16 23
    Middle States (Mid-Atlantic) 57 11
    West (Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri) 17 1
    South (including Louisiana) 3 50
    Southwest (Tennessee, Kentucky) 12 9
    Total 105 94

  6. "South Carolina and its favorite political son, Vice President and later Senator John C. Calhoun, went to the wall against the tariff in the 1832, “nullifying” it within state borders – as if that were anywhere near constitutional." I don't have the relevant citations to support my assertion, but I have read many accounts of the wide-spread acceptance by the founding generation of nullification. Why does Mr. Domitrovic so blithely dismiss it as obviously unconstitutional? Seems like a Whig interpretation. I am wrong here?

  7. The Constitution is rather explicit: "No State shall, without the Consent of Congress, lay any duties on Imports or Exports, except what may be absolutely necessary for executing its Inspection laws". (Art. I. Sec. 10.) "Nullification" was not a serious Constitutional question for anyone in 1832 because it had already been asked and answered. The States, under the 10th Amendment, had equal sovereign authority to the Federal government except in those areas where the Constitution explicitly awarded authority to Congress. The difficulty for Calhoun was that everyone did accept nullification as a State right in all areas where the Congress and the President were not given superior authority. Calhoun wanted to pretend that the Constitution and the Union were themselves nothing more than nullities. That is what angered Jackson to the point of pure fury. He was not going to allow some "War Hawk" politician who had never served a day of his life in the line to decide that the Constitution was just another piece of paper to be debated over by lawyers. For Jackson the 4 decades of the fight for independence that had begun in Concord and ended at the Battle of New Orleans were not going to be insulted by anyone and certainly not by someone who had favored high tariffs only a decade earlier. The Constitution was a sacred document of Union, and for its opponents Jackson had and would again go to war and fight to the death.

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