My question is very narrow and specific:

I am looking for records on value of imported goods unloaded at Northern ports (predominantly NY) and subsequently transported to South and sold to Southern customers.

I am not sure if these records exist or are available. Perhaps I am too perfectionist: in the article I am working on, I already proved beyond the reasonable doubt that tariffs were not nearly the reason for secession and war; now I am going for unreasonable doubts.

I already gave up to find the answer on my question myself; if nobody would be able to help me, article would go as is, with contemporary eyewitnesses opinion instead of numerical data. I think it is good enough, however it could be better.

UPDATE Folks, I have to clarify my question. Post is very long, and it looks like question itself is not clear.

I am not asking if tariffs were the reason of secession and war; l know they were not. The most convincing evidence is not confederate constitution, not historical votes on customs and slavery, and even not secession declarations. The hardest evidences is that in all compromise proposals, congressional and peace conference, there are no single word about tariffs - only slavery, slavery, and slavery.

I am not asking what portion of tariffs was paid by southern ports - 8% I quoted is well supported by census data and other reputable records.

P.S. Thank you to NSNoob for editing this post and making it more readable.

Preliminary research

Proponents of tariffs as primary cause of the Civil war claim:

"Since they were so dependent on trade, by 1860 the Southern states were paying in excess of 80 percent of all tariffs” The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War; by Thomas J. DiLorenzo, 2002, ISBN 0-7615-3641-8, page 135-126:

“During the 1850s, tariffs amounted to 90 percent of federal revenue. Southern ports paid 75 percent of tariffs in 1859” Was the Civil War about tariff revenue? By Walter Williams - Washington Examiner 2/19/13

It is relatively easy to verify that Southern ports paid much less. According to “Financial Failure and Confederate Defeat” by Douglas B. Ball, in 1860 out of total $52.3 million custom collection, southern ports paid $4.0 million (7.6%).

However, it should be considered that because some supplies from overseas were landed in New York and then carried south, southerners as final consumers indirectly paid bigger than 8% portion of tariffs (by no mean 75-80%).

Most likely South paid no more than proportional (by white population) share of tariffs, and probably less, according to contemporary eyewitnesses:

*“When the valued exports and imports of any of the Southern states are compared, it is found that the former is invariably exceeds the latter, in consequence of the want of a consuming class… It is common theme for the Southern politicians to lament the want of enterprise among the merchants in conduct a foreign import trade… But the truth is, there are few imports required, for every Southern town tells the same tale” North America, its agriculture and climate, by Robert Russell, Edinburgh 1857

“A very large part of our duties are collected on the class of goods for which there is almost no demand at all from the South, either directly or indirectly – woolen and fur goods, for instance; of the goods require for the South not a few have been practically free. The whole slave population of the South consumes almost nothing ... The majority of the population habitually makes use of no foreign production except chicory, which, ground with peas, they call coffee. I have never seen reason to believe that with absolute free trade the cotton States would take a tenth part of the value of our present importations. And as I can judge from observation of the comparative use of foreign goods at the South and at the North, not a tenth part of our duties have been defrayed by the South in the last twenty years” The Cotton Kingdom, Vol. 1, by Frederick Law Olmsted, New York – London, 1861

It sounds very logical, and both authors intensively traveled South in mid-1850. However, I prefer numbers, not just impressions. I could not find data to prove (or disprove) this.

Could someone help?

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    Compare votes on slave issues vs customs duties by the regions of the representatives and senators over time - say 1820 to 1860, and see if the south changed position on the customs issue. The customs revenue by port is easy to verify by reference to annual federal summaries. I find the thesis unlikely, but wort checking. Commented May 27, 2016 at 11:29
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    There are no official internal trade records, because the constitution prohibited taxes on interstate trade. So this would need to be dug out of commercial records, and would be mixed up with internal trade flows. Commented May 27, 2016 at 14:22
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    Does * DiLorenzo* provide any citations or even general references for his claims? If he does not backup his claims with research, then the claims are empty. There is a long tolerated narrative in the United States which allows southern writers to deny that the causes of the War Between the States was caused by slavery; this toleration was originally an act of reconciliation. But history is not what people say after the fact, it is in the events and peoples previous to the facts at hand. Commented May 27, 2016 at 14:32
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    @PeterDiehr - In this day and age, it's more conspiracy theory in support of White Supremacist ideology of various stripes than reconciliation myth. One of the many reasons eyes roll and answers become curt whenever it's trotted out. It's vicious nonsense along the lines of holocaust denialism, and it's a tedious waste of time to debunk again and again and again whenever someone thinks they've found the super secret actual real reason for the American Civil War that doesn't involve black Americans at all. Commented May 27, 2016 at 17:16
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    Rarely does any major war start out for the same reason for everyone involved. The truth of the matter is that the American Civil War was primarily related to Slavery, and that relationship itself had many tangents. However, it wasn't due to that for all people everywhere. To some it was secessionist rights, to others, who knows, maybe unequal tariff payment distribution did have its proponents. Like it or not, however, the OP has thoroughly changed the question and so mightn't some of these comments be invalid and removed now?
    – CGCampbell
    Commented May 28, 2016 at 15:28

4 Answers 4


edit: this question originally asked if slavery was really the cause of the US civil war. I was able to reassure the OP on that point ;). The OP was not trying to claim tarrifs were the cause of the war, and refined the question to its current form. OP asked that this answer to the original question should stay, so here it is.

No, tariffs were not the reason. There are any number of sources from confederates explaining why they started the war (slavery) but perhaps the most obvious one is the confederate constitution:

  1. No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed.

The Democratic and Whig parties had split over slaves. The south's 1860 presidential nominee was solely concerned with protecting the right to own slaves. The south's sympathisers in the union congress tried to stop Lincoln from emancipating slaves. Slaves, slaves, slaves.

The obfuscation that the war 'wasn't about slavery' is founded on a distortion of the situation before the war. Attempts to abolish slavery immediately were not on the table, because the votes in congress did not exist for it. It is partly correct to say that the war wasn't (at first) about abolition. Before the war, abolitionists were an extremist minority, which serves as a reminder that the 'moderates' or centrists are not always right.

Mainstream republicans like Lincoln also wanted to end slavery for moral reasons, but they had a longer-term plan which didn't include an immediate antislavery law. The antislavery strategy was to limit slavery to the states where it already existed, and build up enough free states so that one day they would have the votes to end it.

The south was wise to this strategy, and tried to establish its own state governments in the territories. That's what 'bleeding Kansas' was all about. They were bleeding over slavery, not tariffs. Eventually they concluded they couldn't stop antislavery this way, so they had to find another way.

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    Thank you for your answer. You are completely correct on the subject, but it does not answer my question - see post UPDATE Commented May 27, 2016 at 13:47
  • My post remains a relevant answer to the question in the title, so you should change that too. If you want to know how much northern businesses marked up goods they were reselling down south... No idea.
    – Ne Mo
    Commented May 27, 2016 at 13:53
  • Original title was "southern tariffs", NSNoob changed it while was editing post, I don't want to undo what he did - I think with update is OK. Thank you again; your answer was generally correct, and (unlike previous one) informative and polite. I upgraded it at the first reading. Commented May 27, 2016 at 14:31
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    Unfortunately, through no fault of your own (Ne_Mo) this answer no longer answers the question. It's a great answer, but ...
    – CGCampbell
    Commented May 28, 2016 at 15:22
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    thank you for the kind words. I don't mind if it is deleted or incorporated into the question somehow.
    – Ne Mo
    Commented May 28, 2016 at 17:14

The original question itself states,

"Proponents of tariffs as primary cause of the Civil war claim: "Since they were so dependent on trade, by 1860 the Southern states were paying in excess of 80 percent of all tariffs” The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War; by Thomas J. DiLorenzo, 2002, ISBN 0-7615-3641-8, page 135-126:

“During the 1850s, tariffs amounted to 90 percent of federal revenue. Southern ports paid 75 percent of tariffs in 1859” Was the Civil War about tariff revenue? By Walter Williams - Washington Examiner 2/19/13"

My answer to this is that paying tariffs does not only mean customs duties being paid at ports. You can even see this today with all the talk around US and Chinese tariffs. So it follows that wherever this figure originally came from, it may mean tariffs being paid by consumers.

Someone with the name Spencer replied before deletion that "Not only that, the claim about the tariff burden was based on exports (i.e. cotton). It is nonsensical to claim that the South was somehow importing more than the north."

I don't know how anyone would think that tariff burden falling on southerners means the south imported more than north. That is neither what I meant, nor what is required to pay 75-80% of the value of customs duties collected by the federal government.

The answer to this question I gave is relevant. The original poster said "proponents of tariffs as the primary cause claim", then cites two quotations that southern states paid 80% of tariffs and 75% of tariffs in the second. What are all the contexts of "pay"? If you prohibit imports and i have to buy a higher cost domestic good, I paid. As is the discourse today, they say "consumers pay tariffs". Northern industry was protected - the south did not have a manufacturing base like the north.

I showed where i got data to show that the amount of higher prices they were paying is equivalent to approximately 75% of tariff revenues. That reply was deleted. Here's how i came to that. (Copied text)

"I did find one book from 1860 that tries to calculate this, but the title makes me think it's going to clearly be biased: "Southern Wealth, Northern Profits". Chuckles aside, it uses figures from various govt records that it cites and comes up w a number of 146 million in manufactured exports to the south. I found elsewhere that US GDP is estimated for 1860 at just shy of 12 billion, with 17% of that being the manufacturing (by all means, please correct this if wrong). That number seems believeable if correct. It'd put manufacturing at about 2 billion and even then, 146 million seems small. And at 146 million, assuming that 20% was the true average tariff of the products they could have imported (and not just an across the board avg for all tariff lines on the tariff schedule), that would suggest the southern economy was paying a burden of 29.2 million, which would've been about 75% of federal revenues from tariffs (according to a link above showing total customs revenues by ports). Since as mentioned earlier over 90% of federal revenues came from tariffs, this may be where the number is coming from. D'Lorenzo may have pulled it from another early 20th century work or post civil war writing (I have no idea here, just guessing), but granted that that book I got those numbers from's main purpose seems to be in calculating these things with numbers, there's a good chance it's where it originally stemmed from"

All this being said, i am not arguing the causes of the civil war even though i do believe the south seceded primarily over slavery and not tariffs. So i agree w everyone above.

  • (1/2) @user44855 That is some pretty cool research to try to reverse-engineer how they might have gotten that number. I know you're not necessarily trying to give a definitive estimate and have acknowledged the potential bias, but I have a few questions about the analysis you did: 1. Would all manufactured products be marked up in this way? I would have thought that little things like nails and what-not might not be. 2. If we are including the cost of foregone imports, does this imply that the (static) cost of the tariffs to the nation was greater than the total tariff take? In particular, ...
    – capet
    Commented Oct 13, 2020 at 3:09
  • (2/2) would this imply that Northern non-industrialists would be paying >75% of tariffs by themselves (assuming their consumption of industrial products was bigger than that of the South), and that some combination of industrialists and the government would be getting back some amount that is less than the total cost of tariffs to non-industrialists? 3. Would it make sense to go one step further and consider short-term "dynamic" effects, like potential increased demand for non-industrial products from industrialists?
    – capet
    Commented Oct 13, 2020 at 3:13

Your Question:

I am looking for records on value of imported goods unloaded at Northern ports (predominantly NY) and subsequently transported to South and sold to southern customers.

As far as I know, there's no comprehensive data that would show this, as interstate transportation of goods was not subject to taxation or regulation, and so didn't generate the sort of records that imports/exports did.

But generally speaking, in the South you had (very roughly) one-third of the national population, of which (very roughly) one-third was enslaved. So you're talking about the South representing (maybe) a quarter of the entire national population that's potentially consuming tariffed imports. The slaveholding South was, in addition, relatively cash-poor, with much of its capital and wealth tied up in the form of human chattel. There is simply no credible way to claim that southerners consumed the bulk of imported (and tariffed) goods and materials, much less the figures quoted (e.g., "in excess of 80 percent of all tariffs”) by Thomas DiLorenzo and Walter E. Williams. It's a ludicrous claim on its face.


DeadConfederates.com suggests that Southern ports paid 75% of tariffs. Late to the game but interesting none the less. The Third Annual Report of the Chamber of Commerce of the State of New York may contain additional relevant information.

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    Your answer would be improved by taking the key points from the pages you link to and noting them here. Link only answers can become useless if the linked pages are moved or removed.
    – Steve Bird
    Commented Sep 21, 2016 at 6:39
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    Thank you, I know this blog, it is very good source for Civil War research. Commented Sep 21, 2016 at 18:49
  • I was already using NY Chamber of commerce reports, and found some indirect information, confirming that moving imported goods from NY to southern ports did not impact significantly proportion of tariffs paid by South. Products with predominant or large southern demand was not imported trough NY, obviously going directly to southern ports. For example, less than 15% of all imported gunny cloth and gunny bags, used predominantly on cotton plantations, was imported to NY, versus 2/3 to 3/4 total country import trough NY. Commented Sep 21, 2016 at 19:19

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