The Hoax That a Tariff Provoked the Civil War

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

Engraved portrait of Congressman Justin Smith Morrill
Congressman Justin Smith Morrill. Hutton Archive/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 ignores the issue of slavery, which had become a dominant issue in American life in the decade preceding the Civil War.

So the simple answer to common questions about the Morrill Tariff is, no, it was not the 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 slavery 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 the issue of slavery was prominent. And the continually escalating tensions over slavery were surely not some obscure or side issue in America.

However, the Morrill Tariff was a controversial law when passed in 1861. And it did outrage people in the American South, as well as the 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.

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. And 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 opposed to the new tariff. And the Morrill Tariff was 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.

And 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.

Was Abraham Lincoln Responsible for the Morrill Tariff?

The idea of a new protectionist tariff came up during the election campaign of 1860, and Abraham Lincoln, as the Republican candidate, did support the idea of a new tariff. And while the tariff was an important issue in some states, most notably Pennsylvania, it was not a major issue during the election.

And 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 claims that Lincoln created the law to penalize the South are quite a stretch.

Was Fort Sumter a "Tax Collection Fort"?

There is a historical myth circulating on the internet that Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor was really a "tax collection fort." And thus the first shots of the Civil War fired in April 1861 were somehow connected to the newly enacted Morrill Tariff.

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 which saw the city of Washington burned and Baltimore shelled by a British fleet.

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."

Was the Morrill Tariff the Reason Southern States Seceded?

No, the secession crisis really began in late 1860, and was sparked by the election of Abraham Lincoln.

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 slavery 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.