Why didn’t Lincoln just let the Southern states secede and leave the Union?


Aug 20, 2017
Los Angeles, California
why did Lincoln decide to war with the South in April of 1861 with only the information available at the time.

I think this is where a lot of the disconnect is deriving from.

The question was not “did Lincoln make the right decision” or “was he motivated by altruism” or “was he consistent in every action he took.”

The question was “why did Lincoln decide to war with the south.”

If you think Lincoln was picking and choosing what parts of the constitution to follow, that’s your prerogative, but it doesn’t answer or help to answer the original question. If you think Lincoln was acting like a hypocrite, that’s your prerogative, but it doesn’t answer the question.

Lincoln told us why he went to war. His speeches and actions across his life are consistent in showing a belief in the importance of preserving the Union and the existential threat that secession posed. YOU may think peaceful and limited secession was possible, but Lincoln clearly didn’t. Whatever concerns Lincoln had about the economic consequences of secession paled in comparison to his stated concerns as to the existential threat of secession.

And his actions support this conclusion, such as his countermanding of early emancipation efforts by generals for fear of provoking border states to secede.

If you want this thread to shift into an analysis of the justness of Lincoln’s behavior, then that’s a conversation we can have. If you want it to shift to an analysis of the decisions he made, then that’s a conversation we can have.

But in 38 pages of debate there has not been any conclusive evidence that Lincoln went to war for economic reasons. There has been plenty of analysis as to the potential economic damage of secession, but no clear lines have been drawn between those numbers and Lincoln’s actions.

Lincoln’s concern about collecting the revenue was understood then and now as a worry about the legal consequences of permitting South Carolina to ignore federal law.

I will cite again the words of Louis Wigfall, who certainly had no desire to defend Lincoln, as to such from a speech on March 7, 1861
(page 332 https://digitalcommons.lsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3871&context=gradschool_disstheses)

"Why sir, if the President of the United States were to send a fleet to Liverpool and attempt there to enforce the laws of the United States and that fleet were fired at, would anybody say that the British Government was responsible for the blood that might follow?"

Enforce the laws of the United States in a foreign country. That was the issue at stake. Lincoln is sending a fleet to Charleston to "enforce the laws of the United States." Collecting revenue means enforcing the laws.

Even the most virulent secessionists understood this.

Philip Leigh

formerly Harvey Johnson
Oct 22, 2014
Tariffs change all the time, and the 1789 Tariffs are not the same as the ones that came in later. The tariff on sugar changed seven times from 1789 to 1800, remained unchanged from then to 1812. The Louisiana Purchase was in 1803 and Louisiana was admitted as a State on April 30, 1812. The tariff on sugar imports was doubled in 1812 as the war started. I am sure Louisiana sugar planters were quite happy with that.

The war rates were reduced in 1816. The tariff on sugar imports changed in 1832. The sugar tariff moved much the same way most other tariffs did in 1833, 1842, 1846 and 1857. I am not saying that the Louisiana planters were pushing this on the rest of the country as a protective tariff. It was conceived as a revenue measure and worked well as one. At the same time, it was a major benefit to the Louisiana planters, serving them as a protective tariff that made their businesses more profitable.

Louisiana was not the lowest-cost producer of raw sugar, but they were close enough to compete on price with places like Cuba. The US tariff made the Louisiana sugar producers more profitable than they would have been without it. For the most part Louisiana politicians stayed quiet about it, since import tariffs grew more unpopular in "the South" as the decades passed by.

It's a murky and complex subject. You may have already seen this, but here is a link to an article on it: The Taxation of Sugar in the United States, 1789-1861 by Charles S. Griffin, The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 11, No. 3, pp. 296-309.

Yes. The tariff on raw wool imports was a favorite of small farmers raising sheep (popular in "the North", but also in certain areas of "the South"). The woolens manufacturers were OK with it as long as there was an equivalent tariff on imported woolens. Without that woolens tariff, the proposed tariff on raw wool would actually have been punitive to the Northern woolens manufacturers, making their goods more expensive while leaving the imported woolens alone. The usual political horse-trading ensued. Since the imported woolens were taxed, the woolen manufacturers did not oppose the 1860-61 Morrill Tariff -- and the Republicans used the raw wool tariff as a big election issue in most Northern states.
Thanks for the link on sugar tariffs. It was revealing to see the lengths to which the refiners (in the mid-Atlantic) used the re-export drawbacks as a way evade taxes and gain added subsidy to their operations.


May 2, 2006
Thanks for the link on sugar tariffs. It was revealing to see the lengths to which the refiners (in the mid-Atlantic) used the re-export drawbacks as a way evade taxes and gain added subsidy to their operations.
Here's a quote from my Dad's old boss that I find applies to an amazing number of situations: "Money attracts thieves." The study of history reveals an astounding number of people who -- if not exactly "thieves" -- are certainly willing to stretch, bend and twist the rules to make more money. :smile: