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Economics, not slavery, was the cause of Southern secession and the War for Southern Independence. From 1824 onward, federal protective tariffs were the chief bone of contention between North and South, the latter objecting that they amounted to legalized plunder in which Southerners were forced to make a lose-lose choice between overpriced Northern manufactures and overtaxed European manufactures. Either way, the government-protected Northern monopolies or federal government were enriched at the expense of the South. In addition to the creation of Northern monopolies (the artificially high prices of which lowered the Southern standard of living), protective tariffs, by reducing demand for European imports, in turn reduced European demand for Southern exports, thus decreasing overall income and employment in the South. In short, the economic burden of federal protective tariffs fell squarely on the South.
Southerners, by and large, viewed their plight as analogous to that of their Revolutionary forebears, who were also subject to taxation without representation under the system of British mercantilism preserved and resuscitated in the frozen North. Federal protective tariffs were raised in 1824, 1828 (the “Tariff of Abominations,” which South Carolina famously nullified), and 1860. In 1860, the “Morill Tariff,” for which Abraham Lincoln’s enthusiasm was a key factor in the otherwise obscure Republican’s presidential nomination, more than doubled existing tariff rates. Lincoln made federal protective tariffs a central feature of his presidential campaign, and swore support for the Morrill Tariff if he were to take office.
At this point, Southerners saw the writing on the wall; the prospects for a peaceful and prosperous union were grim. Acting in the tradition of their Revolutionary forebears, the Southern states declared independence (or, “seceded”) from the federal government, which had become more like a European imperial nation-state rather than the voluntary republic of sovereign states confederated in peace and trade that the Founding Fathers originally intended.
First, the “Deep South” (South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas) seceded, but the “Upper South” (Virginia, North Carolina, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Maryland) remained in the Union, hoping to negotiate a compromise. Initially, many Northerners took a thoroughly Jeffersonian view of Southern secession, but when Northern industry and the federal government realized that a free and independent South meant the loss of the captive customers and taxpayers whom they were accustomed to looting, the war drums began beating. After manipulating the Confederacy into firing the first shot at Fort Sumter (by threatening war if federal taxes were not enforced in the Confederacy, which forced the Confederacy to choose between surrendering to federal tariffs – thus negating the whole point of secession – or drawing a line in the sand and calling Lincoln’s bluff), however, Lincoln then unilaterally ordered state governors to marshal 75,000 troops for the conquest of the Confederacy, an unconstitutional declaration of war which the Constitution reserves to the Congress. If Lincoln had obeyed the Constitution, Upper-South Democrats may have been able to force a diplomatic resolution, but Lincoln’s usurpation of legislative authority prevented any possibility of peace. Lincoln having crossed the Rubicon, the remaining Upper-South governors were openly defiant in their rejection of Lincoln’s orders, and their states promptly seceded – all but Maryland, the government of which Lincoln had overthrown in a military coup, and remained occupied under martial law for the rest of the war – to defend themselves and their Southern brethren.
Moreover, at the time of Southern secession, Republicans were attempting to pass a constitutional amendment (the “Corwin Amendment,” what would have been the Thirteenth Amendment) which would have made slavery permanent in the states in which it already existed – i.e. the Southern states. Lincoln and the Republicans were pledging aggression on taxation and appeasement on slavery, yet despite this supposed concession, the Southern states still seceded, for the burden of federal mercantilism was simply too bitter to be borne. As Charles Dickens – yes, that Charles Dickens – wrote, “The South, instead of seceding for the sake of slavery, seceded in spite of the fact that its separate maintenance will expose them…to risks and losses against which the Union would afford security.”
According to census data from 1860, of the 5.3 million people living in the South, approximately 6% owned slaves. Even then, approximately half of that percentage were yeoman farmers who worked in the fields alongside their slaves. The other half were the aristocratic planters, gallant cavaliers, and Southern belles who lived in the grand plantations featured in American classics like Gone With The Wind. The vast majority of Southerners, however – a whopping 94% – owned no slaves. Since so few Southerners actually owned slaves, Northerners claimed that wealthy Southern planters, protecting their own interests, had manipulated the general population into a rebellion against their best interests. Actually, logically, the fact that so many Southerners fought and died for a cause in which they apparently had no stake implies the opposite – that they may have had other motives, such as liberating themselves from federal economic exploitation (the chief motive of the earliest Confederate states of the Deep South), or defending their homeland from invasion (the chief motive of the later Confederate states of the Upper South). Robert E. Lee, for instance, resigned his position in the U.S. Army to command the Army of Northern Virginia, but abhorred slavery and freed his own slaves. Two of Lee’s most famous corps commanders, Stonewall Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart, owned no slaves themselves. Even during the dark days of Reconstruction, during which the federal government was disenfranchising Southern whites and privileging blacks, Lee himself said that, “So far from engaging in a war to perpetuate slavery, I am rejoiced that slavery is abolished.” Lee and his fellow officers – as well as the hundreds of thousands of non-slaveowning men under their command – would not have led an army they believed was fighting for slavery.
Finally, slavery would have eventually died of natural causes, without a cataclysmic war. In “Human Action,” Ludwig von Mises explained why markets made slavery obsolete: the costs of owning labor (providing food, clothing, shelter, education, etc.) vastly exceeded the costs of simply renting labor. Just as slavery was peacefully abolished everywhere else in the Western world, so it would also have been abolished – both de facto and de jure – in the South.
To the extent that slavery was an issue, it centered mainly on the expansion of slavery into the Territories, which ultimately reduced to yet another instance of federal protectionism. Northerners, coming from states with oppressive “Black Codes” which ranged from depriving blacks of property rights to prohibiting them from residing in a state altogether, wanted to keep the Territories free for white settlers only. By prohibiting slavery in the Territories, whites would be protected from black competition, and thus artificially richer than they would have been if Southerners had been permitted to settle with their slaves.
Even if slavery was the cause of the war – which it most certainly was not – as Woods and McClanahan have noted, that neither detracts from the justice of self-determination as a natural right, nor legitimizes the total war which Lincoln waged against the Confederacy, in which hundreds of thousands of Southern men, women, and children were plundered, raped, enslaved, and murdered.