The Real Cause of the U.S. Civil War

Historians Edit Calhoun

In 1830, John C. Calhoun was Vice President of the United States. He was also the leading southern statesman and the principal architect of South Carolina's theory of tariff nullification. Because of his great stature in southern politics, historians have made into the centerpiece of their argument for slavery-as-cause his purported admission that slavery was at the root of the North-South enmity. The historians, however, have tampered with his language, omitting words to distort his statements into an interpretation that Calhoun did not intend. Calhoun's letter was actually a complaint about the tariff and its effects in setting the North and South in opposition with respect to taxation and federal government spending.

One historian, perhaps emboldened and encouraged by his predecessors' similar examples, published some text that will serve to illustrate. He quoted from a Calhoun letter to support his views of slavery as the cause of the North-South conflict. He described a South quaking in fear of abolition. "Pro-slavery theorists," he wrote, "were troubled by the prospect of being outnumbered by the free states." "They worried," he said, "about the growing abolitionist movement, fearing that a militant and abolitionist North might begin to wield the power of the federal government in ways that would insinuate an anti-slavery agenda into slave states by measured degrees."

These fears, the historian believed, drove Calhoun to become a "militant strict constructionist and states-rights advocate, shrilly committed to the opinion that federal tariffs to finance internal improvements were an abrogation of the rights of the sovereign states." "Such was the justification of the famous 'nullification' campaign against the Tariff of 1828." "[S]lavery was the central issue all the while, as the nullification leaders admitted." "The nullification episode was largely a pretext--a symbolic rallying point--a flashpoint for agitation by which to generate leverage against the much larger formations of power that the agitators envisioned just over the horizon." Asserting that "Calhoun admitted as much in his private correspondence," the historian quoted passages from Calhoun's letter to prove the point.

But Calhoun admitted no such thing. He said something quite different. The historian's highly edited version of Calhoun's statements is set out below for comparison, side-by-side, with Calhoun's original text. An analysis of the significance of the omissions follows that. Moreover, the interpretation that the historians gave is substantially different from those thoughts which Calhoun clearly expressed at length in other correspondence.

The Historian's Quotation

I consider the Tariff, but as the occasion, rather than the real cause of the present unhappy state of things. The truth can no longer be disguised, that the peculiar domestick institutions of the Southern States . . .                                                                                                                                                       have placed them in regard to taxation and appropriation in opposite relation to the majority of the Union; against the danger of which, if there be no protective power in the reserved rights of the states, they must in the end be forced to rebel, or submit to have                                                                     their domestick institutions exhausted     by Colonization and other schemes, and themselves & children reduced to wretchedness.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                

What Calhoun's Actually Wrote

I consider the Tariff but as the occasion, rather than the real cause of the present unhappy state of things. The truth can no longer be disguised, that the peculiar domestick institution of the Southern States, and the consequent direction, which that and her soil and climate have given to her industry, has placed them in regard to taxation and appropriations in opposite relation to the majority of the Union, against the danger of which, if there be no protective power in the reserved rights of the States, they must in the end be forced to rebel, or submit to have their paramount interests sacrificed, their domestick institutions subordinated by Colonization and other schemes, and themselves & children reduced to wretchedness. Thus situated, the denial of the right of the State to interfere constitutionally in the last resort, more alarms the thinking, than all other causes; and however strange it may appear, the more universally the State is condemned, and her right denied, the more resolute she is to assert her constitutional powers lest the neglect to assert should be considered a practical abandonment of them, under such circumstances.

By his abbreviated text, the historian attempted to make it appear as if Calhoun was concerned solely with the "domestick institution" of slavery. With the omitted words restored from Calhoun's original text, however, the meaning is different. Each omission changes the meaning.

The historian omitted the phrase "and the consequent direction, which that and her soil and climate have given to their industry." With the words omitted, the domestic institution of slavery appears to be the only factor operating to place the North and South in opposite relation with regard to taxation and appropriation. Exactly how slavery would have placed North and South in opposition with respect to taxation and appropriation the historian doesn't explain. It does not make economic sense.

With the omitted words restored, the meaning is different. Now, it is seen that Calhoun described the domestic institution as only one of three factors, the others being soil and climate, that gave the direction to southern industry that placed them in opposite relation to the rest of the Union with respect to taxation and appropriation. What Calhoun meant is that the combination of the three factors of the domestic institution of slavery, rich southern soil and favorable climate made it possible to produce the agricultural crops of cotton and tobacco that were the South's principal source of revenue. Calhoun's focus was not on slavery, but on southern "industry," by which he meant the production of cotton and tobacco. The omission hides that from the reader.

There is an economic relationship between tariff rates and cotton prices. High tariff rates cause cotton prices to decline. The South wanted low tariff rates to keep its cotton revenue up. The North wanted higher tariff rates to protect its manufacturing industry from British competition and to provide revenue to finance canals and river and harbor improvements. Either the South could have high cotton prices or the North could have high protective tariff rates. It could be either one or the other, but never both at the same time. This is what Calhoun meant when he referred to the "opposite relation with regard to taxation and appropriation." That relationship is illustrated in the chart below.



The historian omitted the phrase "their paramount interests sacrificed." This is the most significant omission of all, for it deletes the principal point of Calhoun's statement. The "paramount interests" were the revenues from the sale of the South's cotton and tobacco agricultural crops that were its principal products. Calhoun correctly believed that the taxation and appropriations policy desired at the North would "sacrifice" their principal source of revenue. The relationship shown in the chart above illustrates that, when the North finally did control tariff rates, cotton revenue was indeed sacrificed. To omit the phrase is to hide from the reader the principal economic fear that shaped southern politics.

Import tariffs greatly injure the revenue from export commodity products such as cotton and tobacco. An import tariff is an inherently evil tax because it is not uniform in its effects on the public. It may appear to benefit a few citizens in the short run because it keeps out foreign competition, but it is clearly disastrous for others who are dependent on foreign trade. That injury was vastly greater in scope than the actual amounts of tariff duties paid on southern imports at Charleston and New Orleans. This severe sectional inequality was the insidious economic mechanism that worked to create an enmity between North and South. This "opposite relation" with respect to taxation and appropriations was Calhoun's focus, and not any risk that northerners would somehow abolish slavery.

After the phrase "domestick institution," the historian reported the word "exhausted." The word "exhausted" means to be drained of resources, perhaps by the colonization of slaves in Africa. Calhoun, however, did not use that word. He used instead the word "subordinated" in describing the action upon the domestic institution. The word "subordinated" means being made subject to or made subservient to. In view of the fact that the context of the sentence is "taxation and appropriations," Calhoun undoubtedly considered that the North would "subordinate" the domestic institution to colonization schemes, the appropriations for which would be financed by increases in the tariff rate which would, in turn, reduce cotton revenue. Northern manufacturers would be delighted to raise the tariff rates to finance colonization schemes because that would only increase their tariff protection. By federal subsidy of colonization, not only would the South lose part of its labor force, but it would also have to pay, in lost revenue, a multiple of the cost of losing it.

There was yet another incentive for northern manufacturers to subsidize colonization of southern slaves in Africa. By the formula in the U.S. Constitution for slave representation, each southern slave colonized in Africa would reduce the South's strength in Congress-the South would lose three-fifths of a unit of the population which formed the Constitutional basis of southern representation in Congress. Lessened southern representation would tend to swing the delicate balance of power in Congress toward the North on tariff and spending matters. Tariff protectionists had long fretted about the "extra" three-fifths representation the South had for its slaves and regretted its effect in giving the South the balance of power. By a scheme of colonization not only could they gain additional political power over the South, but, they could cause the South to pay for the North's acquisition of that power. Giving full five-fifths representation to the South for its slaves was not in their contemplation. These are additional factors of the "opposite relation" of North and South on the "taxation and appropriations" that Calhoun had in mind.

The historian omitted the words, "Thus situated, the denial of the right of the State to interpose constitutionally in the last resort, more alarms the thinking, than all other causes; . . .." What Calhoun meant was that denial of the right of the state to nullify the federal tariff meant that there were only two options left-either they could submit to northern rule and experience devastated cotton revenue or they could rebel. There was little but terrible tragedy in each of those options. No wonder Calhoun was alarmed.

The historian also omitted the remainder of the sentence: "and however strange it may appear, the more universally the State is condemned, and her right denied, the more resolute she is to assert her constitutional powers lest the neglect to assert should be considered a practical abandonment of them, under such circumstances." In the United States there is in the body of common law the equitable principle of laches. By that principle, if you do not timely assert your legal rights, you may be then forever barred from asserting them. Calhoun was a lawyer and undoubtedly, like most law students, learned the principle in law school.

"The point, said the historian, "was this: in light of the majority status that the free-state bloc had been gaining, the most militant slave-state leaders decided to prevent any sizable concentration of power-including the power to raise significant amounts of revenue-at the federal level, lest a newly powerful federal government fall into the hands of abolitionists, who would use their power to strike at the slavery system in all of the slave states." Another historian, he said, "put it succinctly; the nullifiers feared that "the 'general welfare' clause would serve abolitionists as well as road builders.""

These historians argue that southerners didn't want the federal government to be able to raise large sums of money, fearing it would use the money to interfere with slavery. They have missed the whole point of the North-South controversy. Southerners didn't want the federal government to raise large sums of money in the first place because the economic effects of the tariff would ruin southern agricultural income. The protective tariff would greatly restrict the international trade that the South was dependent upon to take the largest share of its agricultural products. The tariff proceeds would eventually come out of the pockets of the South in greatly multiplied amount. Each dollar of federal revenue raised by the import tariff would cost the South several dollars in lost cotton and tobacco revenue.

Imposing the protective tariff would damage the South more than any possible interference with slavery. Emancipation would destroy the slave owners' investments in their slaves, of course, but the workers would still exist to labor in the cotton fields as employees. Abolitionists, however, were only a very small minority in the North and immediate emancipation was not a substantial risk, in the absence of military tactics in wartime, at least. The protective tariff, however, would destroy the stream of income from export cotton sales that gave value to black and white labor alike.

Shrewd northern men were using antislavery politics, not to abolish slavery, but to limit the westward expansion of southern agriculture. By this device they wished to tilt the balance of political power in Congress to the North so they could raise the tariff rates. The historians omitted to report the close correlation between tariff interests and antislavery politics. The omission of that correlation and the omission of the correlation between cotton prices and tariff rates leave a large void in the explanation for North-South enmity. They have tried to fill that void by seizing upon fear of abolition as an explanation for southern antagonism. In a strained effort to manufacture evidence to support that explanation, they butchered Calhoun's language.

Calhoun was the leading Congressional spokesman for southern rights and is well known to students of American history. Virgil Maxcy, the recipient of Calhoun's letter, is less well known. He was born in 1784 in Attleboro, Massachusetts. He was a lawyer and a member of the Maryland state executive council in 1815. He edited a three-volume work on the laws of Maryland which was published in 1811. He served in the Maryland house of delegates and in the state senate. He was solicitor of the U.S. Treasury during Andrew Jackson's presidency and from 1837 to 1842 served as U.S. Charge d'Affaires in Belgium under President Martin Van Buren. He was politically well-connected in Washington and was with a group of politicians including President Tyler on board the warship U.S.S. Princeton when a terrible tragedy struck. He was among those killed when a large cannon, named the Peacemaker, exploded into hot metal fragments during a demonstration firing on the Potomac River on February 28, 1844.

Maxcy was an ardent supporter of Calhoun and ardently supported his presidential ambitions. He had known Calhoun for more than twenty years by 1830. He had authored a biographical work on Calhoun that he gave to others for publication. Calhoun trusted Maxcy and was comfortable confiding in him.

Calhoun had voted for the protective tariff in 1816. The political stance he expressed on that occasion he maintained until late in the 1820s. In South Carolina, however, a growing awareness of the great extent of damage the tariff would cause to that state's economic prosperity brought a turnabout in state politics. A strong current of tariff resentment in the state forced Calhoun to abandon his politically ambitious nationalistic stance and change course to a states' rights position, a move that was ultimately fatal to his presidential ambitions. As he explained to the loyal Maxcy, he had not the power to turn the political tide in the state. Calhoun had to scramble to stay at the head of his column of political constituents in South Carolina, his political base.

Calhoun's letter to Maxcy, with the omissions restored, is consistent with the more extensive economic analysis in Calhoun's South Carolina Exposition of 1828. That document explained in detail the economics of federal tariff taxation and the mechanism by which it ruined southern agricultural income, the South's "paramount interest." Calhoun was concerned about the economic side effects of the tariff and not any threat to slavery in the states where it existed. Calhoun knew, as economists of the present day know, that restriction of trade brings poverty. In this, the southerners were right and the northern tariff men were wrong.

The historians appear to have been completely unaware of the magnitude of the effect of the tariff on agricultural revenues of the South. Although Calhoun had described those effects in great detail in his 1828 draft of the South Carolina Exposition, they apparently had either not read it, did not understand it or just didn't believe it. In Calhoun's letter they did see the phrase "domestic institution." They then seized upon the idea that slavery was somehow the thing that bothered Calhoun. They reached the simple conclusion that Calhoun feared a righteous North would use its power to free the slaves and would destroy the investments slaveholders had made in their property. Now having a theory, they tried to tailor and shape the evidence to support it. It has led them and numerous other historians into appalling error.

There is another element to southern politics, however, that may have confused and misled the historians. The difficulties modern historians have had in comprehending the economics almost certainly afflicted much of the antebellum southern public. For southern citizens that were less sophisticated in Calhoun's economics, shrewd southern secessionist leaders adopted a plan of political demagoguery, haranguing the public that the Black Republicans would attempt to free their slaves. That was false, of course, but it created in the minds of the many southerners an antipathy toward the North and a willingness to then go along with secession. Robert Hosea explained this strategy to Lincoln who apparently was convinced of the truth of it, afterwards referring in his speeches to the slavery issue in the South as an "artificial crisis" got up by "designing politicians." Historians have understandably misinterpreted the "artificial crisis" as sincere sentiment of southern political leaders.

Other historians have also quoted from Calhoun's letter, with varying degrees of accuracy, to suggest that slavery was the root cause of the nullification crisis. The wide circulation and repetition of the "fear of abolition" interpretation of Calhoun's letter has transformed that erroneous interpretation into gospel truth in the eyes of the American public.

An illustration of the extent to which the misinterpretation has now become deeply rooted in America's understanding of its history appears in a widely published American history study guide for the SAT Subject Test college entrance examinations. The study guide used the doctored quotation in a practice test question designed to prepare students for the examination on U.S. history. Following is the sample question:

83. "I consider the tariff as the occasion rather than as the cause of the unhappy state of things. The truth can no longer be disguised that the peculiar domestic institution of the southern states and the consequent direction which her soil and climate have given to her industry has placed them in regard to taxation and appropriation in opposite relation to the majority of the nation."

Which of the following statements are supported in the above quote from John C. Calhoun?

I. The existence of slavery is the result of nature and geography.

II. Sectionalism was based on slavery, not states' rights.

III. The tariff was the most important cause of sectional tensions.

IV. The majority of the nation agreed with the southern viewpoint on slavery.

(A) I and III

(B) II and IV

(C) I and II

(D) II and III

(E) III and IV


(F) 83. C [I and II]

Calhoun tried to shift the blame for slavery by saying it was the climate and the soil that required it. This was special pleading for protection of the "peculiar institution" of slavery. Slavery was the key issue behind sectionalism. Therefore, I and II are correct (C). Calhoun was clearer than most textbooks on this question: The tariff was not the main issue behind sectional tensions. It was only the "occasion" for sectional controversy making III a wrong choice. He knew that defending his right to own slaves did not reflect the majority view, making IV a[n] incorrect statement.

The study guide's answer to the question is outrageously wrong. The fault, however, does not lie with the publisher of the study guide. The innocent authors of the practice question had simply referred to what they understandably regarded as the best academic authority on the subject.

This mis-reported version of Calhoun's letter has become central to American historians' popular explanation of slavery as the cause of the Civil War. That explanation they cast as a theory of "class struggle," a conflict between a privileged white male elite southern aristocracy bent on "oppression of the Negro" and a North righteously outraged that their fellow citizens in the South should keep other men in bondage. Misrepresentation of evidence in argument, as lawyers well know, is a sure sign of a weak case.

The absurdity of this "doctored" quotation of Calhoun is magnified in view of Calhoun's abundantly clear statements elsewhere that what worried him was the tariff.

The first illustration is Calhoun's August 25, 1827, Letter to Littleton W. Tazewell of Virginia. The second is his Letter to Letter to James E. Colhoun the following day.