By Thomas J. DiLorenzo
When Charles Adams published his book For Good and Evil, a world history of taxation, the most
controversial chapter by far was the one on whether or not tariffs caused the American War between
the States. That chapter generated so much discussion and debate that Adams's publisher urged him to
turn it into an entire book, which he did, in the form of When in the Course of Human Events: Arguing
the Case for Southern Secession.
Many of the reviewers of this second book, so confident were they that slavery was the one and only
possible reason for both Abraham Lincolnís election to the presidency and the war itself, excoriated
Adams for his analysis that the tariff issue was a major cause of the war. (Adams recently told me in
an email that after one presentation to a New York City audience, he felt lucky that "no one brought a
My book, The Real Lincoln, has received much the same response with regard to the tariff issue.
But there is overwhelming evidence that: 1) Lincoln, a failed one-term congressman, would never have
been elected had it not been for his career-long devotion to protectionism; and 2) the 1861 Morrill
tariff, which Lincoln was expected to enforce, was the event that triggered Lincolnís invasion, which
resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands of Americans.
A very important article that documents in great detail the role of protectionism in Lincolnís
ascendancy to the presidency is Columbia University historian Reinhard H. Luthin's "Abraham Lincoln
and the Tariff," published in the July 1944 issue of The American Historical Review. As I document in
The Real Lincoln, the sixteenth president was one of the most ardent protectionists in American
politics during the first half of the nineteenth century and had established a long record of
supporting protectionism and protectionist candidates in the Whig Party.
In 1860, Pennsylvania was the acknowledged key to success in the presidential election. It had the
second highest number of electoral votes, and Pennsylvania Republicans let it be known that any
candidate who wanted the stateís electoral votes must sign on to a high protectionist tariff to
benefit the stateís steel and other manufacturing industries. As Luthin writes, the Morrill tariff
bill itself "was sponsored by the Republicans in order to attract votes in Pennsylvania and New
The most influential newspaper in Illinois at the time was the Chicago Press and Tribune under the
editorship of Joseph Medill, who immediately recognized that favorite son Lincoln had just the
protectionist credentials that the Pennsylvanians wanted. He editorialized that Lincoln "was an old
Clay Whig, is right on the tariff and he is exactly right on all other issues. Is there any man who
could suit Pennsylvania better?"
At the same time, a relative of Lincolnís by marriage, a Dr. Edward Wallace of Pennsylvania,
sounded Lincoln out on the tariff by communicating to Lincoln through his brother, William Wallace.
On October 11, 1859, Lincoln wrote Dr. Edward Wallace: "My dear Sir: [Y]our brother, Dr. William S.
Wallace, showed me a letter of yours, in which you kindly mention my name, inquire for my tariff
view, and suggest the propriety of my writing a letter upon the subject. I was an old Henry
Clay-Tariff Whig. In old times I made more speeches on that subject than any other. I have not since
changed my views" (emphasis added). Lincoln was establishing his bona fides as an ardent
At the Republican National Convention in Chicago, the protectionist tariff was a key plank. As
Luthin writes, when the protectionist tariff plank was voted in, "The Pennsylvania and New Jersey
delegations were terrific in their applause over the tariff resolution, and their hilarity was
contagious, finally pervading the whole vast auditorium." Lincoln received "the support of almost the
entire Pennsylvania delegation" writes Luthin, "partly through the efforts of doctrinaire
protectionists such as Morton McMichael . . . publisher of Philadelphiaís bible of protectionism, the
North American newspaper."
Returning victorious to his home of Springfield, Illinois, Lincoln attended a Republican Party
rally that included "an immense wagon" bearing a gigantic sign reading "Protection for Home Industry."
Lincolnís (and the Republican Partyís) economic guru, Pennsylvania steel industry publicist/lobbyist
Henry C. Carey, declared that without a high protectionist tariff, "Mr. Lincolnís administration will
be dead before the day of inauguration."
The U.S. House of Representatives had passed the Morrill tariff in the 1859-1860 session, and the
Senate passed it on March 2, 1861, two days before Lincolnís inauguration. President James Buchanan,
a Pennsylvanian who owed much of his own political success to Pennsylvania protectionists, signed
it into law. The bill immediately raised the average tariff rate from about 15 percent (according to
Frank Taussig in Tariff History of the United States) to 37.5 percent, but with a greatly expanded
list of covered items. The tax burden would about triple. Soon thereafter, a second tariff increase
would increase the average rate to 47.06 percent, Taussig writes.
So, Lincoln owed everything--his nomination and election--to Northern protectionists, especially
the ones in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. He was expected to be the enforcer of the Morrill tariff.
Understanding all too well that the South Carolina tariff nullifiers had foiled the last attempt to
impose a draconian protectionist tariff on the nation by voting in political convention not to
collect the 1828 "Tariff of Abominations," Lincoln literally promised in his first inaugural address
a military invasion if the new, tripled tariff rate was not collected.
At the time, Taussig says, the import-dependent South was paying as much as 80 percent of the
tariff, while complaining bitterly that most of the revenues were being spent in the North. The South
was being plundered by the tax system and wanted no more of it. Then along comes Lincoln and the
Republicans, tripling (!) the rate of tariff taxation (before the war was an issue). Lincoln then
threw down the gauntlet in his first inaugural: "The power confided in me," he said, "will be used
to hold, occupy, and possess the property, and places belonging to the government, and to collect
the duties and imposts; but beyond what may be necessary for these objects, there will be no
invasion--no using force against, or among the people anywhere" (emphasis added).
"We are going to make tax slaves out of you," Lincoln was effectively saying, "and if you resist,
there will be an invasion." That was on March 4. Five weeks later, on April 12, Fort Sumter, a tariff
collection point in Charleston Harbor, was bombarded by the Confederates. No one was hurt or killed,
and Lincoln later revealed that he manipulated the Confederates into firing the first shot, which
helped generate war fever in the North.
With slavery, Lincoln was conciliatory. In his first inaugural address, he said he had no intention
of disturbing slavery, and he appealed to all his past speeches to any who may have doubted him. Even
if he did, he said, it would be unconstitutional to do so.
But with the tariff it was different. He was not about to back down to the South Carolina tariff
nullifiers, as Andrew Jackson had done, and was willing to launch an invasion that would ultimately
cost the lives of 620,000 Americans to prove his point. Lincolnís economic guru, Henry C. Carey, was
quite prescient when he wrote to Congressman Justin S. Morrill in mid-1860 that "Nothing less than a
dictator is required for making a really good tariff" (p. 614, "Abraham Lincoln and the Tariff").
Originally Published at http://www.mises.org/fullstory.asp?control=952