The Hoax That a Tariff Provoked the Civil War

The Morill Tariff Was Controversial, But Could It Have Caused a War?

Portrait of Justin Smith Morrill sitting in chair.
Congressman Justin Smith Morrill. Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

Over the years, some people have claimed the real cause of the American Civil War was a generally forgotten law passed in early 1861, the Morrill Tariff. This law, which taxed imports to the United States, was said to be so unfair to southern states that it caused them to secede from the Union.

This interpretation of history, of course, is controversial. It conveniently ignores the subject of enslavement, which had become the dominant political issue in America in the decade preceding the Civil War.

So the simple answer to common questions about the Morrill Tariff is, no, it was not the "real cause" of the Civil War. 

And people who claim a tariff caused the war seem to be trying to obscure, if not ignore, the fact that enslavement was the central issue of the secession crisis in late 1860 and early 1861. Indeed, anyone examining newspapers published in America during the 1850s will immediately see that enslavement was a prominent topic of debate.

The continually escalating tensions over enslavement had certainly not been some obscure or side issue in America.

The Morrill Tariff, however, did exist. And it was a controversial law when passed in 1861. It did outrage people in the American South, as well as business owners in Britain who traded with the southern states.

And it is true that the tariff was mentioned at times in secession debates held in the south just prior to the Civil War. But claims that the tarriff provoked the war would be an enormous stretch.

What Was the Morrill Tariff?

The Morrill Tariff was passed by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by President James Buchanan on March 2, 1861, two days before Buchanan left office and Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated. The new law made some significant changes in how duties were assessed on goods entering the country and it also raised rates.

The new tariff had been written and sponsored by Justin Smith Morrill, a congressman from Vermont. It was widely believed that the new law favored industries based in the northeast and would penalize the southern states, which were more dependent on goods imported from Europe.

Southern states were strongly opposed to the new tariff. The Morrill Tariff was also particularly unpopular in England, which imported cotton from the American South, and in turn exported goods to the U.S.

The idea of a tariff was actually nothing new. The United States government had first enacted a tariff in 1789, and a series of tariffs had been the law of the land throughout the early 19th century.

Anger in the South over a tariff was also nothing new. Decades earlier, the notorious Tariff of Abominations had angered residents in the South, prompting the Nullification Crisis.

Lincoln and the Morrill Tariff

It has sometimes been alleged that Lincoln was responsible for the Morill Tariff. That idea does not stand up to scrutiny.

The idea of a new protectionist tariff did come up during the election campaign of 1860, and Abraham Lincoln, as the Republican candidate, did support the idea of a new tariff. The tariff was an important issue in some states, most notably Pennsylvania, where it was seen as beneficial to factory workers in various industries. But the tariff was not a major issue during the election, which was, naturally, dominated by the big issue of the time, enslavement.

The tariff's popularity in Pennsylvania helped influence the decision of President Buchanan, a native of Pennsylvania, to sign the bill into law. Though he was often accused of being a "doughface," a northerner who often supported policies that favored the South, Buchanan sided with his home state's interests in supporting the Morrill Tariff.

Furthermore, Lincoln did not even hold public office when the Morrill Tariff was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Buchanan. It is true that the law went into effect early in Lincoln's term, but any claims that Lincoln created the law to penalize the South would not be logical.

Was Fort Sumter a 'Tax Collection Fort?'

There is a historical myth that circulates at times on the internet that Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, the spot where the Civil War began, was really a "tax collection fort." And thus the opening shots of the rebellion by the pro-slavery states in April 1861 were somehow connected to the newly enacted Morrill Tariff.

Illustration of the attack on Fort Sumter
The attack on Fort Sumter.

Getty Images

First of all, Fort Sumter had nothing to do with "tax collection." The fort had been constructed for coastal defense following the War of 1812, a conflict that saw the city of Washington, D.C., burned and Baltimore shelled by a British fleet. The government commissioned a series of forts to protect major ports, and the construction of Fort Sumter began in 1829, unconnected from any talk of tariffs.

And the conflict over Fort Sumter which culminated in April 1861 actually began the previous December, months before the Morrill Tariff became law.

The commander of the federal garrison in Charleston, feeling threatened by the secessionist fever overtaking the city, moved his troops to Fort Sumter on the day after Christmas 1860. Up to that point the fort was essentially deserted. It was certainly not a "tax collection fort."

Did the Tariff Cause the Pro-Slavery States to Secede?

No, the secession crisis really began in late 1860 and was sparked by the election of Abraham Lincoln. Politicians in the pro-slavery states were outraged by Lincoln's electoral victory. The Republican Party, which had nominated Lincoln, had been formed years earlier as a party opposed to the spread of enslavement.

It is true that mentions of the "Morrill bill," as the tariff was known before it became law, appeared during the secession convention in Georgia in November 1860. But mentions of the proposed tariff law were a peripheral issue to the much larger issue of enslavement and the election of Lincoln.

Seven of the states that would form the Confederacy seceded from the Union between December 1860 and February 1861, before the passage of the Morrill Tariff. Four more states would secede following the attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861.

While mentions of tariffs and taxation can be found within the various declarations of secession, it would be quite a stretch to say that the issue of tariffs, and specifically the Morrill Tariff, was the "real cause" of the Civil War.

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McNamara, Robert. "The Hoax That a Tariff Provoked the Civil War." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, McNamara, Robert. (2023, April 5). The Hoax That a Tariff Provoked the Civil War. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "The Hoax That a Tariff Provoked the Civil War." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).