A recent letter to the editor of our local paper argued that secession and the Civil War were caused by high tariffs not slavery. The Confederate states were rebelling against high taxes and big government. Apparently, they were really just Reagan Republicans or maybe even libertarians (slaveholding libertarians). The author of the letter made the claim that the South paid 75 percent of the tariff revenue in 1859. I thought the claim was so outrageous he must have just made it up. It turns out you can find this claim all over the internet. It turns out it even has academic credentials behind it. Some people attribute it to Walter Williams, but he appears to have gotten it from Thomas Di Lorenzo, who attributed it to Frank Taussig’s The Tariff History of the United States. Di Lorenzo, however, did not provide a page citation. I suspect that he did not provide a page citation because one does not exist. If someone can find this in Taussig please let me know.
In any case, it is not true that most revenue came from Southern ports. A small fraction of tariff revenue came from Southern ports. In 1860 the Secretary of the Treasury reported the amount of revenue collected in each collection district between 1854 and 1859. (Sen. Ex. Doc. No. 33 36th Congress 1st Session). Looking at 1857, for instance, one finds that total revenue was $64,171,034. Most of the revenue, $42,510,753, came as it did every year from a single port: New York. The most important port in the South was New Orleans, which brought in a little more than $3 million, less than half as much as Boston. Southern ports were not even close to being the most important source of revenue.
There is no mystery as to why Southern states seceded. They issued secession proclamations explaining their actions. South Carolina was the first to secede, and the state’s proclamation does not mention tariffs. It is entirely about the perceived threat to slavery. It declares that
“A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that "Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free," and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.”
Apparently we are to believe that they were simply hiding their true motivation, opposition to tariffs. I wish modern defenders of the Confederacy were as honest as its original defenders.