Causes of the Civil War Should Not Include Tariff Measures

Bank run on the Seamen's Savings' Bank during the panic of 1857

Slavery was the chief cause of the Civil War. Tariffs hurt the South but the Election of 1860 shows that the 1857 Tariff was supported by the South.

Virginia Governor Robert F. McDonald issued a proclamation declaring April “Confederate History Month.” After much criticism for excluding slavery, the governor amended the Proclamation stating that it was a “major omission.” (Anita Kumar, Washington Post, April 8, 2010) The amended Proclamation asserts that slavery was the cause of the American Civil War. Causes of the war are often attributed to other, tangential issues such as differing views on the Constitution, “states’ rights” versus federalism, and the tariff. In analyzing the tariff issue, however, it is apparent that this was not a direct cause of the Civil War.

The Election of 1860

Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 presidential election, but without a popular mandate. Lincoln received less than 40 percent of the popular vote, although his popular vote in Northern states was 54 percent. Analysts point to the role of Pennsylvania with 27 electoral votes. Pennsylvania was viewed as a Democrat state; the sitting President, James Buchanan, was from Pennsylvania. But in 1860 Pennsylvania voted for the Republican candidate, partly because of the Tariff of 1857. Although unfounded, this tariff was blamed for the Panic of 1857.

There were 303 electoral votes in play in 1860. Lincoln obtained 180. If Pennsylvania had voted for someone other than Lincoln, his electoral vote tally would have been 153, two more than the necessary 151. New Jersey split its electoral vote in 1860, giving Lincoln 4 and Stephen Douglas 3. This conforms to the House vote on the 1857 tariff: northern New Jersey representatives voted for the tariff but southern New Jersey representatives voted against it.

The Tariff of 1857

The Tariff of 1857 was a low tariff measure supported by the South as well as several northern constituencies. The late Harvard historian Frederick Merk referred to the tariff as “almost a free trade measure.” Even New England supported the tariff. The tariff, however, hurt the sheep growing interests in Pennsylvania and Ohio by putting woolen goods on the free list.

Although the ensuing Panic of 1857 was not caused by the new tariff schedules, the emerging Republican Party propagandized the issue. Iron industries in Pennsylvania were particularly hurt by the 1857 economic decline. By 1860, “Pennsylvania abandoned its ancient allegiance to the Democratic Party…and it moved into Republican ranks,” according to Merk. Although the 1860 Republican Party Platform did not mention the tariff, the issue helped Lincoln to capture enough electoral votes to be declared President.

Tariffs Affected Sectional Concerns

Pre-Civil War tariffs, dating back to the Jefferson Administration, affected the South differently. Several tariff measures passed in these years benefited vital industries in the Southwest while hurting the mono-agriculture of the Southeast. Congressional votes on tariffs verify this. States opposed to high tariff schedules tended to rely on cotton as their major source of revenue.

Yet when cotton prices fell, it was not the effects of higher tariffs. Over-production caused severe declines in cotton revenues. On the eve of the Civil War, for example, Britain – the largest export market, had two years worth of cotton stockpiled in warehouses.

Did the Tariff Cause the Civil War?

Tariffs were tangential to the chief cause of the Civil War: the Southern institution of slavery. From all documented sources – including the writings of the South’s chief apologist John C. Calhoun, slavery was the primary issue of contention between the North and the South. Cotton, the chief cash crop for the South, would never have been profitable but for slave labor. Tariffs were always an issue, notably in states like South Carolina, but the repeated calls for secession in the 1850s were always related to slavery.


  1. Michael F. Holt, The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 1999)
  2. Frederick Merk, History of the Westward Movement (Alfred A. Knopf, 1978)
  3. Page Smith, The Nation Comes of Age: A People’s History of the Ante-Bellum Years (McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1981)