Dwight T. Pitcaithley on Florida and Southern Secession

I am pleased to share the following comment that was left on the last post by Dwight T. Pitcaithley.  Dr. Pitcaithley worked for many years as the chief historian in the National Park Service and now teaches history at New Mexico State University.  He is also responsible for uncovering Florida’s unpublished declaration of causes.  He has some interesting observations and given that the other thread is impossible to follow I thought it might be helpful to start a new one.

This has been an interesting exchange that points out, yet again, the importance of primary sources in understanding the past.

The Florida declaration of secession has to be placed in a different category from the other four declarations. Not only was it never approved by Florida’s secession cenvention, it is a hand-written draft that, we assume, was not even approved by the comittee charged with developing it. Why the convention aborted the effort mid-way through the process remains — for now — a bit of a mystery.

The other “official” declarations stand as the best and most authorative justifications for secession available to us today. South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas specifically developed their declarations to explain to the people of those states (and to the nation as a whole) why they voted to secede. Having studied them at length, and the convention journals from which they emerged, I see no reason why we should not take them at their word. All of them make clear that the rise of the Republican Party and the election of a Republican president threatened the continued existence of the institution of slavery. As Mississippi declared: There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.

In answer to an earlier question, all four of the declarations make some mention of John Brown’s raid.

For an interesting twist on the tariff issue, look at Georgia’s declaration which takes some pains to argue that while the tariff was an important subject earlier in the nation’s history, it did not play a role the secession movement of the late 1850s and early 1860s.

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26 comments… add one
  • Ray O'Hara Jan 12, 2012 @ 18:19


    Libertarians Judge Napolitano. Thomas DiLorenzo and some guy named Wood on the “real” cause of the Civil War.
    The fact that they claim that the South was no longer States of the USA and then accuse Lincoln of treason because he made war on the States of the USA.

    That Lincoln didn’t care about Slaves and that he didn’t free the Slaves but that he started the war to free the Slaves which they also claim he didn’t free anyway.

    That they seceded over a tariff that wasn’t passed until after they had already seceded.

    I’m sure all this makes sense to them but it seems to fail the logic test for me

  • Dwight T. Pitcaithley Jan 11, 2012 @ 17:59

    Thank you for the addition, Paul.

    The argument linking secession and tariffs has taken on a life of its own in spite of the paucity of evidence to support it. Throughout the secession debates, the issue of high tariffs was occasionaly raised. But conversations that involved high versus low tariffs constituted a very small percentage of the secession debates.

    Example No. 1: During the Second Session of the Thirty-sixth Congress, northerners and southerners did have extensive discussions over what became the Morrill Tariff. Page after page of the Congressional Globe for this session documents the detail with which senators debated the specifics of the bill. Importantly, at no time during that extensive conversation did anyone stand up and claim that if the Senate didn’t produce a low tariff the South would secede. Not once, did a senator – North or South – link the debate over tariffs to the debate over secession.

    Example No. 2: Over Secession Winter, congressmen, delegates to secession conventions, state legislators, and several governors proposed amendments to the U.S. Constitution in the hope of solving the sectional conflict. Senator John J. Crittenden proposed the most famous of these on December 18, 1861. By the end of March 1861, a total of sixty-five of these “compromise” amendments had been proposed. What is useful for our discussion here is that ninety-five percent of them were designed to protect slavery in different ways throughout the country. In only two instances did a proposed amendment include the principle of lower tariffs: two out of sixty-five! But to put a finer point on the tariff issue, I should mention that while some of these proposed amendments were concerned with single issue, most contained multiple issues or articles. The total of all the articles contained in the sixty-five amendments amounts to around 350 articles. Once again, in only two of these articles do we find an argument for a lower tariff. The political leaders of this nation, as they debated secession, clearly placed concerns over the future of slavery at the core of the secession crisis. Debate over the tariff was incidental at best.

    • Beezley Jan 13, 2012 @ 11:46

      I still think it’s an overstatement to say that it was merely incidental. The tariff was evidently significant enough to merit a direct complaint in the secession documents of South Carolina and Georgia, as well as this new proposed one from Florida. But it also came up in the secessionist political literature. Here’s one example of the Charleston Mercury railing against it on 3/29/1861:

      The Sachems of the Black Republican party did not appreciate the peculiarity of the times when they enacted the MORRILL tariff. So keen and eager were their appetites for legislative plunder, that they were blind to its disastrous political, diplomatic and commercial effects. All policy was sacrificed to the individual gratification of the selfish manufacturing voluptuaries, and they overdid the thing. Like most profligates, they are now paying the penalties of their intemperate and untimely indulgences. We perceive that the whole press of New York, with the solitary exception of the Tribune, are sitting in sackcloth and ashes, lamenting over the folly and its punishment in the destruction of trade, the paralysis of the LINCOLN Government, and its damaging effect upon European alliances. The Express, hitherto classed among the Protectionist journals, condemns it in the severest terms. The Commercial Advertiser, always on the side of Protection, calls for a special session of Congress to repeal what it calls an injudicious and ill timed measure. The Times attacks it unsparingly, both as a very bad measure at any time, and as most particularly so at the present juncture. The Journal of Commerce and the Daily News give it no quarter. The World is bitter against it. The Evening Post is second to none in its criticisms upon the insanity which induced the party to enter upon so foolish a course of legislation; while the Herald comes out, morning after morning, with leaders of a column in the most trenchant style of denunciation.

      But the most surprising fact — and one which indicates that the crisis is upon the North with the cry of sauve que peut — is the fact, that these journals, one after the other, are advocating DIRECT TAXATION AND FREE TRADE, as the only means of saving the North from the gulf that is yawning to swallow them up. In the emergency, they are ready and anxious to throw overboard every superfluous article of weighty legislation, no matter how ardently sought in the past, or how valuable to Northern interests in ordinary times. We trust the people of the South will see, in a light stronger than ever before, how deeply they are interested in the Free Trade policy, and what prodigious advantages it will confer upon them. It has been the partial operations of the United States Government, through the establishment of centres of credit, United States Banks for Northern cities, Tariffs for Northern manufacturers, internal improvement expenditures chiefly for the benefit of all at the North who might be concerned; it is those that have kept Southern cities stationary, and built up the great emporiums of the Northern merchant princes. Free trade and direct connection between producers and consumers in the common, untrammelled markets of the world, is the plain interest of the South. By that policy we will transact our own business for ourselves, find lucrative occupation for our people, and grow in respectability and power as we will in wealth and prosperity.

      • Dwight T. Pitcaithley Jan 13, 2012 @ 13:16

        I think I’ll stick with my “incidental” comment.

        While there were those who wanted tariffs to be a major issue in the debates, the political leaders themselves — when gathered together to discuss and decide secession — simply did not spend much time discussing them. If one were to analyze the Congressional Globe over Secession Winter, the journals of the eleven state secession conventions, the journal of the Washington Peace Convention, and the journals of the Tennessee and Kentucky legislatures — the principle venues for “official” secession discussion and decisions — little time, very little time, was spent on tariffs. And, as I mentioned earlier, during the development of the Morrill Tariff in the Senate, the discussion was never linked to secession.

        I just checked Jon L. Wakelyn’s Southern Pamphlets on Secession, November 1860-April 1861, and the index contains no entries for tariffs.

        I would not argue that there was no discussion of tariffs over Secession Winter, only that the men who were charged with making the fateful decission to stay or to go did not spend much time debating tariffs as a reason for secession. When compared with the amount of time spent discussing threats to slavery as a reason for secession, the tariff debates appear almost irrevelant.

        • Bernard Jan 16, 2012 @ 22:15
          • Dwight T. Pitcaithley Jan 17, 2012 @ 10:34

            Point well taken! In this case, however, Wakelyn produced a pretty good index. A persusal of the book does reveal a mention or two of tariffs that could have been included in the index. The vast majority of the pamphlets reprinted here, on the other hand, prove the point that the issue roiling the country was the perceived threat the incoming Republican administration posed to the institution of slavery and not the specter of high tariffs. All in all, the evidence for sectionalism being based on tariff issues runs quite thin.

            Even during the 1830, concerns for the future of slavery intermingled with the tariff controversy according to Bill Freehling. See Prelude to Civil War: The Nullification Controversy in South Carolina, 1816-1836 (1966).

      • Ray O'Hara Jan 13, 2012 @ 17:05

        nobody commits treason and fights a war for tariffs.

        • Bernard Jan 16, 2012 @ 22:21

          Then why did South Carolina go to the brink of one in 1832?

          • Ray O'Hara Jan 17, 2012 @ 6:45

            “brink of one” but then they didn’t.
            showing, nobody goes to war for tariffs.
            and good luck recruiting an army with that as a rally point.

  • Paul Taylor Jan 11, 2012 @ 16:52

    Kevin –

    I own a copy of the “Journal of the Proceedings of the Convention of the People of Florida Begun and Held at the Capital in the City of Tallahassee on Thursday, January 3, 1861,” which was published later that year. Though I’ve never read through it in any great detail, I’ve begun to examine it much closer as I follow these recent threads.

    On the second day of the gathering (Jan 5), a delegate named John C. McGehee was elected President of the convention. After taking the President’s chair, he rose to make an opening address to all of the delegates. One immediately notes that he refers to the southern states as “slave states” whereas the northern states are referred to as “non-slaveholding states.” The issue of tariffs is nowhere to be found as he explains why they are gathered.

    Indeed, to answer his rhetorical question of why, he immediately explains:

    “In the formation of the Government of our Fathers, the Constitution of 1787, the institution of domestic slavery is recognized, and the right of property in slaves is expressly guaranteed.
    The people of a portion of the States who were parties to the Government were early opposed to the institution. The feeling of the opposition to it has been cherished, and fostered, and inflamed until it has taken possession of the public mind at the North to such an extent that it overwhelms every other influence. It has seized the political power and now threatens annihilation to slavery throughout the Union.
    At the South, and with our People of course, slavery is the element of all value, and a destruction of that destroys all that is property.
    This party, now soon to take possession of the powers of the Government, is sectional, irresponsible to us, and driven on by an infuriated fanatical madness that defies all opposition, must inevitably destroy every vestige or right growing out of property in slaves.
    Gentlemen, the State of Florida is now a member of the Union under the power of the Government, soon to go into the hands of this party. As we stand, our doom is decreed.”

    It’s pretty obvious to me where this man’s thoughts were at as to why they were gathered.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 11, 2012 @ 16:55

      Nice to hear from you, Paul, and thanks for taking the time to share a bit from the proceedings.

  • Keith Harris Jan 11, 2012 @ 10:45

    Hey Kevin – I would like to share some of this discussion (and the previous post on Florida’s secession documents) on Cosmic America – with your permission, of course 🙂 I am finding the back and forth most interesting indeed.


    • Kevin Levin Jan 11, 2012 @ 10:51

      Go for it, Keith.

  • James F. Epperson Jan 11, 2012 @ 10:38

    Another window into the “tariff as cause” debate is in the SC convention debates over that state’s declaration of causes. Maxcy Gregg wanted it to include the tariff, but he was voted down, with Lawrence Keitt saying, “Our people have come to this on the question of slavery. I am willing, in that address to rest it upon that question.” Here is the link:


    Anyone have easy access to the Charleston Courier? I’d like to get scans of the pages that have the Gregg-Keitt exchange.

    • Beezley Jan 11, 2012 @ 10:49

      Your link does not appear to show any evidence of the convention voting down Gregg in favor of Keitt. The only vote that follows their exchange is to strike the word “fifteen” and replace it with “many.”

      Yet when the transcript resumes two days later, they do take up Robert Barnwell Rhett’s Address, which contained a lengthy clause about the tariff and was ultimately adopted a few days later.

      • James F. Epperson Jan 11, 2012 @ 11:08

        I would submit that the final product shows that Gregg did not prevail—there might not have been a formal vote, I may have overstated things in that regard.

    • Andy Hall Jan 11, 2012 @ 11:01

      Check your mail. 😉

      • James F. Epperson Jan 11, 2012 @ 11:09

        Thanks, Andy!

  • James F. Epperson Jan 11, 2012 @ 9:14

    I think the tariff discussion which Dr. P. references is not in the Georgia Declaration, but in the exchange between Toombs and Stephens during their speeches to the legislature in November, 1860. Look at:


    in particular.

    • Dwight T. Pitcaithley Jan 11, 2012 @ 9:48

      Jim is partly correct. The exchange between Robert Toombs and Alexander Stephens in November, 1860 provides much clarity to the tariff issue. (The complete exchange is presented in Freehling & Simpson, Secession Debated: Georgia’s Showdown in 1860 (Oxford, 1992)). But Georgia’s Declaration of Secession also confronts the subjects of tariffs and secession. It was adopted on January 29, 1861 and can be found on Jim’s excellent web page and in the 1861 journal of Georgia’s secession convention (pages 104-113).

      Returning to the Georgia legislative debates, Stephens apparently convinced Toombs that he was mistaken about tariffs being the cause of secession for in his (Toombs) extended speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate on January 7, 1861, he exclusively speaks of northern threats to slavery and does not raise the issue of tarriffs. His proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution included five articles designed to protect slavery. For our purposes here, it is interesting to note that his second article would have nationalized slavery removing protection for the institution from the states and placing it squarely within the purview of the federal government. On the issue of slavery, for Toombs ( and many other Southerners) property rights were far more important that states’ rights.

    • Beezley Jan 11, 2012 @ 9:56

      Stephens’ reply to Toombs in Georgia needs to be read in the context of Toombs’ two tariff speeches (see here), as well as the fact that Stephens was arguing against secession at the time.

      Toombs, however, carried the majority at the convention on the tariff point. What came out of it was the historical section of the Georgia Declaration mentioned above, though read in full context of the Toombs-Stephens debate it is not at all saying that the tariff issue was relegated to a matter of the past. Rather, it says that a while verdict on the old Nullification-era tariff debate was made for free trade in 1846 – “the principle was settled, and free trade, low duties, and economy in public expenditures was the verdict of the American people” – that verdict was now being threatened, hence the very next paragraph: “All these classes saw this and felt it and cast about for new allies” referring to the coalition that had been struck between the old protectionists and the anti-slavery free soilers under the new Republican Party banner.

      This in turn directly echoes Toombs’ second speech on the tariff, where he makes explicit reference to Morrill, and Robert Barnwell Rhett’s declaration from the South Carolina convention, where he attacks a similar protection/anti-slavery alliance.

      Protectionism is always secondary to slavery whenever they brought it up, but they did consider it a point of contention against the North.

      • Beezley Jan 11, 2012 @ 10:01

        Those interested in how the tariff issue was eventually settled should also look to the records of the convention to draft the CSA’s constitution. Rhett was again the main supporter and succeeded in inserting a clause to ban protective tariffs. I don’t see any evidence that Toombs ever disagreed with that outcome, or switched to Stephens’ position. And quite the contrary, it was Stephens who came around from cautious unionism to supporting Georgia’s secession after the fact, albeit he did so over slavery.

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