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The Civil War's Forgotten Transatlantic Tariff Debate and the Confederacy's Free Trade Diplomacy

From: The Journal of the Civil War Era
Volume 3, Number 1, March 2013
pp. 35-61 | 10.1353/cwe.2013.0011

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As southern states steadily seceded in the first months of 1861, the British press speculated that the Morrill Tariff's passage was an underlying cause of secession, or at least a barrier to reunion. Contemporaries on both sides of the Atlantic were well aware that the tariff would greatly affect European diplomacy with both North and South, to the former's detriment and the latter's favor.

The Union's Morrill Tariff, which Henry C. Carey, the "Ajax of protectionism," influenced and lobbied for, contrasted sharply with the South's free trade advocacy. The Morrill Tariff had been an important component of the 1860 Republican platform, which ended up a tentative triumph for the party's Whig faction, as it also called for internal improvements, a Pacific railroad, and a homestead law. The British, in turn, viewed the protective tariff with great trepidation, as it threatened British manufactures and proved antithetical to a subject about which, as English statesman Richard Cobden pointed out in December 1861, the British "are unanimous and fanatical"; that subject was free trade. By the time of the Civil War, free trade had become a national ideology in Britain.

The Morrill Tariff's new levels of protection on specific items such as pig iron and wool severely hit at Britain's exports to its largest single market, the United States. The seceding southern states, providing England with nearly 80 percent of its raw cotton imports, alternatively offered Britain the promise of free trade. In Britain, the tariff thus played an integral role in justifying southern secession; developing Confederate trade policy; and affecting public opinion in England, Ireland, and Scotland concerning the causes of southern secession and the possibility of European recognition of the Confederacy. Over the course of the Civil War, the tariff sparked a contentious debate in Great Britain over southern motivations for secession. When the Union did not immediately declare itself on a crusade for abolition, some in Britain sympathized with the South. Northern sympathizers and antislavery advocates would afterward maintain that slavery had been the primary issue all along, while the Confederacy's transatlantic supporters and parts of the British press at first commonly portrayed the war as one fought between northern proponents of protection and southern advocates of free trade, a view that contemporary southerners and their British sympathizers made sure to encourage.

Recent studies of Civil War foreign relations have offered strong arguments for why Britain maintained its neutral stance throughout the conflict by emphasizing the strong transatlantic diplomatic and financial ties that had developed by the mid-nineteenth century. While persuasive, such studies have done so while overlooking British reaction to the tariff at the time it was passed. Although the Morrill Tariff may not have endangered British investment in the United States, it greatly ruffled Britain's commercial feathers and editorial pages. As Martin Crawford has observed, the tariff's impact on British opinion "was certainly greater than most modern historians have been willing to admit." Yet, aside from the recent work of Duncan Campbell, the tariff issue has become little more than a footnote within the diplomatic histories of the Civil War. The Civil War itself has received so much transatlantic study that the minimizing of the tariff issue is all the more striking. Brian Jenkins and Howard Jones have concluded that the Morrill Tariff did not help the Confederacy gain British support, and while David Crook, in his classic work The North, the South, and the Powers, briefly acknowledges that the South sought to "exploit British resentment at the Union's 'new protectionism,' symbolized by the Morrill tariff, and off ered the lure of a free trade south as a vital new market for British goods" and that "southern propaganda excoriated the Morrill tariff," he offers no further treatment of these subjects. Granted, these studies accurately portray the tariff's small role in ultimately influencing the major decisions of Britain's top policymakers. If, however, the Confederacy's free trade diplomacy is expanded to include not only official state-to-state interactions but also the activities of non-state southern sympathizers and pro-Confederate propagandistic efforts to influence English public opinion, then the tariff debate takes on...


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