Southern Views of What Really Started the Civil War, Part I

Introduction – Moving from North to South

For my past three posts, I have been discussing Northern views  of potential causes of the war and and have covered how impacts of Cultural & Economic Pressures, the rise of the Abolitionist Movement,  and disputes about Federal vs. States Rights shaped Northern opinions and made it seem imperative we go to war.  At the outset of that series, I asked readers what they thought the causes of the war, from the Northern point of view, might be.  These are the results.   As you can see, the consensus is that Economic and Cultural Differences were the primary driving force.  I think we can agree with that in that it set the foundation for the patterns that would lead to war. Nevertheless, it was the growth of the Abolition movement and conflicts over States Rights that lit the fire.  Since the North was victorious, the story of Northern views and attitudes towards the war is fairly well known and is taught in all American schools. The victor gets to tell the story.  As a result, the Southern perspective on the war is much less often studied. In the this and the next two blog posts, I will examine how the war looked from the Southern point of view as it began. The perceived causes can often seem surprising to those who have long been coached in the Northern perspective.

It’s All in a Name

First Flag of the Confederate States of America 1861

The vast differences between Northern and Southern views of the war starts with the simple question of what to call it.  Some of the prime contenders:

  • War for Southern Independence : Often used in the South in the early years of the war to reinforce one of the original conceptions of the cause of the war. This label understandably became less popular after the war and after the South’s failure to achieve their independence.
  • War of Northern Aggression: Used in the South in the early years also – and persistently throughout and after – to emphasize the view of Northern imperialism and invasion.
  • War of the Rebellion: Frequently used in the North, particularly in the early years, to emphasize that it was an illegitimate rebellion against a legitimate state.
  • Second American Revolution: Also used, mostly in the South, to emphasize that this was also a revolution against an oppressive domineering and uncongenial government.  This one also could be used by Northerners to emphasize the purpose of the war to maintain democracy and the original purpose of the nation.
  • War Between the States: This was not used that often during the war, but became the most usual way to refer to the war in the South after it was over. This emphasized the belief that defending states rights was a justifiable root cause. It is still used in the South with some frequency.
  • American Civil War: Used most frequently by the North as the war began, to emphasize that it is also a war of civil insurrection that must be suppressed. It is still the most frequently used label for the war. Some might say that is because the victors write and pass on the story of any war. Note: This is not fully resolved.  Congress has never agreed on one common official name for the war.

Most Often Cited Caused of the War from a Southern Point of View

  • Tariffs and Economic Pressures
  • States Rights and Abolitionists
  • Defending Southern Honor

For this first post from a Southern point of view, I will discuss Tariffs and Economic pressures–in subsequent ones, I’ll discuss States Rights and Abolitionists, and Southern Honor.

Tariffs and Economic Pressures

This is a very important factor that doesn’t often feature in the “official story,” perhaps because it does paint the North in a somewhat unfavorable light.

Protective Tariffs. From the time of the first Congress in 1789 to the outbreak of the Civil War there was continued disagreement between the northern and the southern states over the matter of protective tariffs, or import duties on manufactured goods. Northern industries wanted high tariffs in order to protect their factories and laborers from cheaper European products. Demanding that “American laborers shall be protected against the pauper labor of Europe,” tariff proponents argued that the taxes gave “employment to thousands of American mechanics, artisans, and laborers.

Rising Industrial Interests at the North

Different Impacts on North and South. The vast majority of American industry was located in the northern states, whereas the economies of the agricultural southern states were based on the export of raw materials and the importation of manufactured goods. The South held few manufacturing concerns, and a strong impact of the tariffs was that southerners had to pay higher prices for goods in order to subsidize northern profits.

Agriculture Continues as Dominant Economy of the South

Uses for Tariffs. The collected tariffs were used to fund public projects in the North such as improvements to roads, harbors and rivers. From 1789 to 1845, the North received five times the amount of money that was spent on southern projects. More than twice as many lighthouses were built in the North as in the South, and northern states received twice the southern appropriations for coastal defense.

Tariff Nullification Crisis & Talk of Secession Begins (1832). The sectional friction caused by the tariffs bills eventually led the country to the nullification controversy of 1832, during which South Carolina declared the tariff laws null and void. John C. Calhoun, the father of nullification, developed the theory of secession and detailed the steps by which a state could sever its relationship with the Union and remove itself from the unfair power of the central government. Federal authority prevailed in the nullification crisis of 1832, but the theories developed by Calhoun would be invoked again when the country split apart in 1861.

Lincoln Elected as a Strong “Tariff Man”

Tariffs, Lincoln & Ft. Sumter. It is very important to note that Lincoln was seen as a strong supporter of Tariffs—much more clearly than he was seen as an opponent of slavery. It also is a notable fact that Fort Sumter was actually a Customs House, where tariffs on imported goods were enforced and collected.

Fort Sumter – Also a Customs House where Tariffs Collected

Death of Free Trade. Tariffs were seen to represent the death of free trade. The South also saw itself as being looted to pay for the North’s industrial development. The battle over the tariff began in 1828, with the “tariff of abomination.” Thirty year later, with the South paying 87 percent of federal tariff revenue while having their livelihoods threatened by protectionist legislation, it became impossible for the two regions to be governed under the same regime. The South believed itself a region that was being reduced to a slave status, with the federal government as its master. This was exacerbated by the rise of Cotton prices to astronomical levels and desires to control the flow and profits from this commodity.  More on that in the next blog about the impact of King Cotton on trade and tariff disputes.

Death of Free Trade


About Blythe Forcey Toussaint

I have studied 19th Century American history and culture for many years, including a 1992 PhD in 19th Century American Literature from the University of Colorado at Boulder. My academic career included several years as faculty at North Carolina State University and some visiting assignments at the University of North Carolina. I chose to leave academe for industry over fifteen years ago, and have built a career around marketing, training, and business writing. I founded my own consulting company, Performance Trajectories LLC over four years ago and now balance my time between consulting projects and fiction writing. I recently published Year of Disunion: A Novel of the Dawn of the American Civil War. (Available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle formats.) This novel tracks the life of a family in 1861 as the Civil War begins, and as some of them were to be among the civilians who went to watch the Battle of Bull Run/Manassas thinking it would be a fun picnic. This novel also includes events in Washington, Baltimore, Cairo, Raleigh, and Hatteras Island. I am at work on my next novel, working title Gilead’s Fate: The Life of a House that is set in upstate New York beginning in 1811. I come from a line of writers including my grandmother, Anya Seton and great grandfather, Ernest Thompson Seton. I now live in Longmont, CO with my husband and three dogs and finds a lot of writing inspiration hiking the mountains there.
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3 Responses to Southern Views of What Really Started the Civil War, Part I

  1. Dan says:

    Fantastic Blythe, thanks for making the case for the South, it all makes so much more sense now.

  2. Sandi says:

    Great job. I’ve always lived in the South & have always heard people say the Civil War was about much more than slavery. I really wish slavery would’ve never taken place. I just saw the movie Lincoln earlier & it focuses entirely on Lincoln’s abolishment of slavery. I wonder where the US would be now if that part of our history (slave labor, which believe me, I believe has been horrible since time began) never took place…

  3. Yes, I believe it is critical for people to see both sides and now, 150 years after the war, it seems to be a good time for people to think about the bigger picture. We would be a different nation without slave labor–and some would argue that pre-union northern industrial labor was about as close to enslaved as you could get. But, without the cheap labor slaves provided, the US likely wouldn’t have been able to provide the quantities of important crops–indigo, rice, tobacco, and, critically, cotton–that brought the country to world-power status to relatively quickly in the 18th and 19th Centuries.

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