Published Humanitas, Volume XIII, No. 2, 2000

When in the Course of Human Events: Arguing the Case for Southern Secession, by Charles Adams. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000. xiv + 229 pp. + notes, bibliographical essay, index. $24.95.

This work is a spirited polemic whose central aim is to condemn the North’s subjugation of the South between 1861 and 1865. Asserting that the Civil War was at its heart a “fiscal conflict,” Charles Adams, a libertarian and prominent historian of taxation, seeks to demolish the “Northern interpretation” of the war, which holds that the conflict was a great moral crusade to preserve democracy and rid the nation of slavery. Adams suggests instead that the leaders of the United States Government decided to use force to coerce the Southern states to remain in the Union because they believed that secession would drain the federal treasury of a valuable source of revenue. At bottom, Adams contends, it was avarice and not altruism that motivated the Lincoln Administration to take up arms against the rebellious states.

A significant portion of the national government’s revenues, Adams points out, was derived from taxes on imported goods, and most of these were shipped to the South through Southern ports, such as Charleston. That city’s harbor was home to Fort Sumter, hardly the “useless fort” often depicted by historians, but rather a key military installation, controlling the flow of commerce into the city. If Fort Sumter and other such forts had fallen into Southern hands, the United States would have been forced to try to collect revenues off the coast through an extensive and expensive blockade. In addition, it became clear that, if it controlled its own ports, the Confederacy would enact a low tariff, thereby channeling foreign goods away from the North and undercutting Northern industry. Northern businessmen who initially favored letting the South go in peace, Adams contends, quickly changed their minds when these economic implications of Southern independence became clear.

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