The Tariff Which Shook History

Tariff Rate Act Morrill Tax

Morrill Tariff

As has been noted previously, substantive changes in tax policy are often closely tied to big changes in the social order. And the tie is not unidirectional, resulting solely from a tendency for tax measures to provoke heated reaction from a population. Sometimes a social change – such as a war – can massively alter the tax policy of a state. In the historical process, tax policy is both an active agent and a reactive agent, both a cause and an effect.

In most cases, it is not too difficult to determine the impact which a change in tax policy has had on society. The assessment of most changes is rather straightforward. The Morrill Tariff of 1861 – named after its sponsor, Vermont politician Justin S. Morrill – stands out among tax law because it defies this trend: although there can be no argument against its general importance, there is considerable controversy as to its specific role in history. Historians are divided as to what role the tariff act played in furthering the secessionist sentiment among Southern states: was the tariff a point of only minor irritation for Southern states? Or was it a matter of major frustration which caused Southern states to view secession as a necessary solution rather than a possibility?

The thing which is certain about the Morrill Tariff is that it raised rates substantially. In the years just preceding the Morrill act, American tariff rates had been unusually low by global standards. Between 1857 and 1860, the U.S. had average rates of approximately 17 percent overall and 21 percent on dutiable items. By 1865, the Morrill Tariff had increased these rates to 38 percent and 48 percent, respectively. Aside from bringing U.S. rates closer to global averages, the Morrill act also provided means to ameliorate the financial woes plaguing the U.S. Treasury.

Support for the Morrill act tended to vary according to political and sectional affiliation. The vast majority of Republicans voted in favor of the act and the clear majority of Democrats opposed it; there was an unmistakable sectional division as well, with every lawmaker from the Southern states except one voting against the act.

Historians who believe that the Morrill Tariff played only a minor role in furthering sectional hostility emphasize the element of time in the adoption of the act. The development of the tariff had begun well before any state had seceded from the union, but not until several states had withdrawn was the tariff act able to succeed in Congress. Historians point to this fact and infer that the tariff had only minimal significance given that a number of states had already decided to secede.

However, on the other side of the issue, historians emphasize that tariff revision had been a heated topic of discussion well before any state declared secession. The South had a clear interest in embracing free trade given the nature of its economy; Southerners also generally felt that they lacked the proper representation in the federal government which was necessary to ensure an equitable outcome. What’s more, the Morrill Tariff was mentioned specifically as a source of displeasure by the conventions of both Georgia and South Carolina; the tariff was even discussed in South Carolina’s secession ordinance.

The precise role of the tariff in promoting secession (and ultimately the War Between the States) will likely be debated for many years to come. Both sides of the matter have facts on which to rest their case; about which there can be no debate, however, is the fact that the tariff must be regarded among the most consequential in U.S. history.

Image credit: Allen Gathman

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Seattle CPA+John Huddleston has written extensively on tax related subjects of interest to small business owners. He is a graduate of Washington State University and the University of Washington School of Law.

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