At the start of 1861, several Southern states seceded to form their own union under the Constitution of the Confederate States. The Southern Constitution was just a modified version of the original U.S. Constitution, but the edits were significant.
The South seceded largely over economic issues. Heavy hitting tariffs on manufactured goods protected Northern industries while making Southern costs skyrocket. Meanwhile, 90% of the Union’s revenue came from those tariffs and then was spent to help the North.
Slavery certainly was a factor in the Civil War. But it was partly the economic pressures on the South that made slavery an issue. Other countries were compensating slave owners, using federal revenue to ease the transition away from slavery.
In the United States, however, the North was tightening the economic screws. It exploited the South with tariffs and spent the revenue on its own largess.
Two days before Lincoln’s inauguration in March 1861, Northern Congressmen passed the Morrill Tariff. It steeply raised tariffs on politically popular Northern manufactured goods.
Previous tariffs had been a percentage of the purchase price. The practice of providing a phony invoice for a lower amount alleviated much of the tariff’s harm. The Morrill Tariff removed this possibility. It required a specific duty per quantity of the imported item regardless of the purchase price.
With the South peacefully seceded, it was impossible to count on its cooperation. But Lincoln was expected to enforce The Morrill Tariff. A group of Virginian commissioners were deputized to determine if Lincoln would use force and suggested he abandon Fort Sumter.
Lincoln responded, “If I do that, what would become of my revenue? I might as well shut up housekeeping [a euphemism for federal spending] at once!” With 90% of his revenue coming from tariffs collected in the South, the Southern secession meant the union’s budget would take a cut.
He went on to say, “But what am I to do in the meantime with those men at Montgomery [meaning the Confederate constitutional convention]? Am I to let them go on… [a]nd open Charleston, etc., as ports of entry, with their ten-percent tariff? What, then, would become of my tariff?” Just a month before the start of the hostilities of the Civil War, Lincoln had tariff revenue on his mind.
Meanwhile, the Confederate States correctly judged the need for additional checks on the federal government’s power to tax some while benefiting others. The confederacy is often portrayed as the villain in popular media. But the Confederate edits to the Constitution would have helped prevent a lot of the federal mischief we’ve experienced.
The Confederate states added a prohibition on tariffs protecting specific industries and required all such taxes to be uniform throughout the country. Such a law removed the special interest lobbying and patronage that elected Lincoln. It was based on the more general principle that if the power doesn’t exist to discriminate between specific industries, there is no incentive to buy the right to wield that power for your own industry’s benefit.
They also removed the general welfare justification for collecting taxes leaving only providing for the common defense.
The general welfare clause was originally intended to limit the power of Congress and prohibit it from providing for special interest groups. It was included as a summary version of the 17 specific powers immediately following it. James Madison, principal author of the Constitution, argued that no one would misunderstand the general welfare clause and give Congress unlimited power. The specific limited powers, he argued, were “not even separated by a longer pause than a semicolon.”
Prior to 1936, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed in multiple cases. Then Franklin D. Roosevelt packed the Supreme Court with six extra Justices. The Court finally justified his 1937 Social Security Act and a host of other New Deal legislation under the misunderstanding that Madison had thought impossible. Since then, the general welfare clause has been used to justify nearly every aspect of the federal budget.
The Confederate Constitution added much language to block any laws intended to “facilitate commerce.” Much of the tariff revenue collected from the South had been used to build railroads and canals in the North. In other words, one man’s money was being used to better another man’s state. The Confederate Constitution solved this problem as well.
To the article giving Congress the power to regulate commerce, the Confederate Constitution adds “but neither this, nor any other clause contained in the constitution, shall ever be construed to delegate the power to Congress to appropriate money for any internal improvement intended to facilitate commerce.”
This additional clause was intended to stop the federal government from taking the money collected from everyone and use it to pay for one region’s development.
The only internal improvement the Confederate Constitution justified was work on harbors and rivers. However, such improvements had to be paid for using money collected from the people navigating them.
In the U.S. Congress, congressional favors were and still are passed by the slimmest of majorities. However, the Confederate Constitution solved this by requiring a two-thirds super-majority of a congressional vote before any federal funds could be spent. They believed the more impediments to legislative spending the better. If spending was disliked by as many as a third of Congress, it is likely we would be better off without it.
The Southern Founders also anticipated the congressional shenanigans of hiding large special interest spending projects inside otherwise helpful legislation. They added a presidential line-item veto, writing, “The President may approve any appropriation and disapprove any other appropriation in the same bill.”
Finally, the Confederate Constitution changed the term of the president to six years but prohibited the chief executive from serving two terms. Many of our former Presidents have agreed. The first year a president is trying to learn the job. The next three years he is running for reelection. Only in his second term, if then, is he taking the long view and thinking about his place in history.
We are thankful the Civil War ended the abominable practice of slavery in the United States. However, our gratitude for this social change causes us to overlook what the Confederate Constitution had to offer.
The Civil War began over exploitive protectionist tariffs. On this specific issue, the South may very well have had the higher moral ground. Southerners wove some of their improvements into the Confederate Constitution. Our slavery-focused retelling of the Civil War loses sight of issues of freedom we’ve lost with the Confederate Constitution.
Total nonsense. You have inserted fabricated quotes about tariffs, but more, you ignore what Southern leaders boasted about before, and even after, the Civil War.
Learn about the Five Southern Ultimatums, issued in May of 1861. All five Ultimatums were about the spread of slavery — not one, NOT ONE, about tariffs. All five. One –slavery must spread into Kansas. Two — slavery must spread into Kansas,
Never mind that Kansas have voted against slavery 98% to 2%. Kansas must “accept and respect:” slavery.
Learn about real history, not distorted bullshit. The best place to learn history is from Southern leaders AT THE TIME. In their own speeches, their own headlines, their own documents, their own books.
Alexander Stephens, of course, gave the most elaborate, repeated, and detailed account of Southern Constitution in his 8 city tour, just before the Civil War, where he boasted to cheering crowds that the Confederacy was based on not just enslaving the inferior race for GOd, but based also on punishing blacks for biblical sins. Stunning. You can’t make that up. He wasn’t some drunk at a bar, he was their VP, and the newspapers loved it, the crowds loved it.
Stephens said very clearly, and at length, that the Confederacy was based on Gods will for white men to enslave and PUNISH blacks! He pointed out, correctly, that other nations had various sorts of slavery for a time, but CSA was the only nation on earth — he bragged of this– to be FOUNDED, as it’s fundamental principle, (the corcerstone) of the Confederacy was “the great moral truth” that blacks are inferior and whites are ordained of God to enslave them — and PUNISH them.
Stephens was not blabbering to himself in a drunken stupor, he was bragging to cheering crowds. He had not said anything new or even controversal, these same things SOuthern leaders had said for years, other than Davis stunning insight that the Confderacy – alone in history — was based on slavery. Not just an aspect of their nation, not just allowed, not just protected, but slavery and the spread of it was the VERY BASIS for the existance of the Confederacy.
This was not some guy who was trying to make Confederacy look bad, he was their talk master, he was on tour to explain it! He was official! He was clear.
Even in 1880, when interviewed by a biographer, about the Cornerstone speech, Stephens said yes, those where his words. He had even helped reporters at the time with their transcripts of his speech!!! The only thing he added in 1880, was to say, falsely, that he had ALWAYS said slavery must be beneficial to blacks or it should end, he had never said such a thing. Ever. There is no record of him ever uttering any such nonsense, in fact, he was saying slavery was specifically intended to punish the inferior black race.
When you understand the Cornerstone speech, then the five ultimatums make sense. And so do comments by Lee and others that God ordained slavery. The South BRAGGED about spreading slavery for God.
It was not the protection of slavery — is was the SPREAD of slavery Davis demanded.
Learn real history.
Southern books, even sermons, at the time shouted this out from the rooftops. SPREAD SLAVERY or we will be exterminated, said Toombs. If we do not spread slavery we will die like being burned at a slow fire, said the governor of Florida
Toombs, Stephens, Davis, even the Confederate Constitution demanded the SPREAD of slavery.
Get real, quit lying to people. Either learn what Southern leaders bragged about, officially, at length, and with much repetition (no gotcha quotes)
All David is trying to say is that the Confederate States had some good clauses in their constitution. Yes, the constitution did explicitly guarantee slavery and that was evil, but that does not mean that everything they did was without merit.
States Do have a right to secede under the constitution and it IS true that the north screwed them over with taxes.
Why are we the only country that went to war over slavery? Other countries managed to do it peacefully. If the feds had just compensated the slave owners and then banned slavery, maybe there would not have been a war and many BLACKS and whites would not have had to die, and live with the hell that was the years of reconstruction.
Many blacks got lynched AFTER the civil war because of all the bitterness on both sides.
Except that “David” now has published multiple posts trying to re-write history and excuse secession by claiming (falsely) that the war was really all about tariffs, which would come as a shock to the leaders of the Confederacy. And no point is valid if it involved twisting or flat out making up false “facts” in order to support it.
States Do have a right to secede under the constitution
No. They don’t. FULL STOP.
If the feds had just compensated the slave owners and then banned slavery,
Lincoln himself was a long time advocate of compensated emancipation. Right before the war started there were all sorts of efforts in the north to prevent the war by promising all sorts of deals to protect slavery as an institution. It was SOUTHERNERS who freaked out and seceded because they were afraid of the boogeyman of emancipation.
and live with the hell that was the years of reconstruction.
Actually, the hell came AFTER reconstruction, when federal troops were removed from the south and the defeated and bitter bigots of the old confederacy took over and turned blacks back into second class citizens. One of the worst mistakes we ever made was not keeping the south under armed occupation for another 50 years.
Re: The Right of Secession
Although we now have the Civil War as precedent proving that secession will be met with aggression, there is actually Constitutional evidence that states should have had the right to secede. Walter Williams writes in his magazine article “Do States Have a Right of Secession?”:
Don’t be so hasty in your opposition. As Socrates said, “Wisdom begins in wonder.”
Re: “It was not the protection of slavery — is was the SPREAD of slavery Davis demanded.”
Actually, it’s the turn of phrase “the extension of slavery,” which makes you think that. Like both “pro-life” and “pro-choice,” it is perhaps deceptive titling. As our recent blog post says:
If you’re interested in the subject, I’d encourage that you read Jefferson Davis himself in The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, which we quote in that article.
You do realize that Northerners paid tariffs too, right? That federal records show that about 2/3rds of all import duty revenues was collected at the port of New York, right? Southerners were not so put upon. They were not being “exploited” simply to enrich the North, which was actually far richer and had industrial might many of times that of the South.
You should check your facts. Clearly at least some of that day thought otherwise:
“Cartoon drawn during the nullification controversy showing the Northern domestic manufacturers getting fat at the expense of impoverishing the South under protective tariffs.” – Encyclopedia of Britannica