Justin Morrill for 30 years led the fight to raise tariffs on goods that competed with U.S. products. For that, he took the blame — unjustly — for starting the Civil War.
Charles Dickens was one of the critics who disapproved of Justin Morrill, a Vermont congressman he probably never met.
Morrill had shepherded through Congress a tariff protecting U.S. industry and raising workers’ wages. It also punished southern cotton exporters and British textile manufacturers that hungered for raw cotton.
Many, including Dickens, wrongly believed the South seceded from the Union because of the Morrill Tariff.
But historians argue the Morrill Tariff did NOT start the Civil War — and that it helped the United States emerge as a major industrial power.
Justin Morrill today is best known for starting land grant schools like the University of Connecticut, University of New Hampshire, MIT and more than 100 others. He was also the single most important Republican in Congress on trade issues from the Civil War to the turn of the 20th century.
As a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate, Morrill represented the interests of Vermont farmers.
“The farmer of Vermont felt himself robbed by every pound of butter, every cord of wood, and every head of cattle that came across the border to be sold in competition with his own products,” wrote a biographer. The same held true for manufacturers.
Morrill fought what was then called ‘reciprocity treaties’ – ‘you cut my tariff, I’ll cut yours.’ Today they’d be called bilateral trade treaties. Morrill fought them all, ‘tooth and nail,’ he told a friend. While Morrill was head of the Senate Finance Committee from 1877 to 1898, no new reciprocity treaty passed the Senate.
“I am for ruling America for the benefit, first, of Americans, and for the ‘rest of mankind’ afterwards,” he said.
“Free trade abjures patriotism and boasts of cosmopolitism. It regards the labor of our own people with no more favor than that of the barbarian on the Danube or the cooly on the Ganges.”
For those who believe globalization is inevitable, the Tariff of 1857 proves otherwise.
Morrill was a sophomore congressman when the Tariff of 1857 lowered tariffs to about 17 percent. Southerners and farm states supported it, believing U.S. trade partners would lower their tariffs and create more demand for cotton and agricultural exports. Then the Panic of 1857 struck later in the year, and free traders lost the upper hand.
From 1858-98, as a Whig congressman and Republican senator, Morrill pushed for tariffs protecting products made in the United States.
On March 2, 1861, the Morrill Tariff passed. It increased duties in order to raise wages for industrial workers and to protect specific industries such as wool, iron, textiles and other manufactured goods.
Southerners tried to blame the Morrill Tariff for starting the Civil War despite the fact that southerners had already left the Senate. South Carolina had already seceded more than two months earlier.
The British, including Dickens, hated the Morrill Tariff and bought the southerners’ argument.
In 1861, American historian John Motley wrote the Morrill Tariff ‘has done more than any commissioner from the Southern republic could do to alienate the feelings of the English public towards the United States.’
Dickens owned a magazine called All the Year Round. In it, an article attacked the tariff . “…under all the passion of the parties and the cries of battle lie the two chief moving causes of the struggle,” it said. “Union means so many millions a year lost to the South; secession means the loss of the same millions to the North. The love of money is the root of this, as of many other evils…”
Karl Marx, also writing from London, argued slavery caused the Civil War and the tariff was just a pretext.
Historians argue whether the Morrill Tariff did or did not cause the Civil War. They are less interested in whether protective tariffs helped or hurt the U.S. economy.
One historian notes the Civil War — and the Morrill Tariff — ‘was the forcing ground…of American industrial development.’
“The increase in manufactured output was phenomenal,” wrote A.J. Youngson Brown in the American Economy 1860-1940. “The value of manufactured products increased from about $2,000 million in 1859 to about $13,000 million in 1899 … This stupendous increase has many significances; most notably, from the international viewport, America by the 1890s had become the premier manufacturing nation of the world.”
Morrill sponsored two higher tariffs during Abraham Lincoln‘s administration to raise money for the Civil War.
Overall, tariffs didn’t fall until the Revenue Act of 1913, known as the Underwood tariff.
From 1860 to World War II, every Republican presidential candidate supported protective tariffs, according to U.S. Trade Policy: History, Theory, and the WTO by William A. Lovett, Alfred E. Eckes, Jr. and Richard L. Brinkman.
“They preached class harmony and warned that removal of the protective tariff would ‘bring widespread discontent’,” they wrote.
President William McKinley said, “Free trade results in giving our money, our manufactures, and our markets to other nations.”
Justin Morrill died in office on Dec. 28, 1899, at the age of 88. The Morrill Homestead in Strafford, Vt., is a National Historic Landmark.
This story about Justin Morrill was updated in 2019.