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Tariff and secession caused Civil War, not slavery

Abraham Lincoln

Reporter Arthur Hirsch's article on the recent article on the re-enactment at the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg included a familiar Civil War anecdote about a Confederate soldier who had been captured at Fort Donelson ("A defining day relived," July 2). Responding to a question from his Union captors, he famously answered, "We're fighting because y'all are down here." As a source of empirical evidence, this tale invites profoundly misleading interpretation: There is a duty to disclose the message actually intended by a Rebel who spoke his answer fully seven months before Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.

The Civil War came because Southern states seceded. However, with 15 slave states by 1860, President Abraham Lincoln and the slaveholders had well known that a Constitutional Amendment ending slavery would never be feasible. It was accordingly obvious that Southerners opted for secession as the remedy for a different grievance altogether — egregiously inequitable effects of a U.S. protective tariff that generated 90 percent of federal revenue. Foreign governments retaliated for it with tariffs of their own, and payment of those overseas levies represented the cost to all Americans of their U.S. government, or 90 percent of that cost.

Southerners generated two-thirds of America's exports and also bore two-thirds of those retaliatory tariffs abroad. In other words, the Old South carried 60 percent of a federal load resulting directly from levy of protective tariffs on imported foreign goods. The 18.5 percent of U.S. citizens who resided in the Old South bore a share of federal government cost that was three times their proportionate obligation.

Southerners could not hope for relief from the retaliatory tariffs overseas unless their trading partners could be relieved of the onerous federal tariff levied throughout the U.S. Offered the Old South by President Lincoln was nothing by way of fiscal reform at all. And so, that Fort Donelson captive only paraphrased Confederate leadership — a leadership determined to throw off a U.S. government that, if allowed to remain "down here," would forever impose economic subservience upon Southerners who consequently had no honorable alternative to secession.

Dennis G. Saunders, Columbia

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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