Several historians have proffered evidence purporting to show that the tariff was a mere pretext for southern secession and that it was really slavery and fears of abolition that were driving southerners to secede from the Union.
That evidence, although it is the foundation for the now prevalent view of historians that slavery caused the war, is false. It consists of quotations of southern leaders that have been severely edited so as to completely reverse the meaning. The historians tampered with the evidence. They took quotations that only tangentially cited slavery and cut out key words and phrases that relate to the tariff. They then "interpreted" the cut-up text as showing slavery was central to the conflict.
Although the editing was severe, it is difficult to believe that this was a deliberate attempt on the part of so many historians to deceive the reader. It is more likely that their error arose in another way.
The historians appear to have been completely ignorant of the economic side effects of high protective tariff rates. They simply could not conceive that the national tax, which was imposed at the same rate on northerners and southerners alike, could have such disparate economic consequences, especially the imposition of severe economic devastation on the South.
Not understanding the economic mechanism, they viewed the tariff words as mere surplusage. They excised those words in an earnest attempt to tailor the narrative to efficiently convey their views to the reader. By publishing their "doctored" evidence, they have vastly compounded the ignorance.
To illustrate the problem, three of the most widely published examples of the doctored quotations are explored below. The links are to pages that tell the circumstances of the original document and compare the original and doctored text side-by-side so that the excisions are easy to see. Each of the purported admissions of these men turns out to be, when the excisions are restored, strong evidence that the tariff was actually the cause of the conflict.
The first example is John C. Calhoun's September 1830 letter to Virgil Maxcy. As the greatest of the southern sectional politicians, with a forty-year career in Congress, an admission by Calhoun that slavery was the cause of sectional conflict would be important evidence. Historians have attempted to show such an admission by "doctoring" a Calhoun quotation to make it seem as if Calhoun were admitting that slavery was the cause.
James Hamilton was a Charleston lawyer who represented South Carolina in the U.S. Congress from December 13, 1822, to March 3, 1829. He was Governor of South Carolina from 1830 to 1832 and was elected to preside over the Nullification Convention in 1832. An admission from such a major figure that slavery was the center of the conflict would have important evidentiary value. Here again, the historians have tampered with the evidence. Hamilton made no such admission.
George McDuffie was a successful South Carolina lawyer and planter with a long career in Congress. As a U.S. Congressman, McDuffie was Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee for the Nineteenth through the Twenty-second Congresses. He was later Governor of South Carolina and a U.S. Senator. An admission from McDuffie that slavery was the cause would weigh heavily in the balance. The historians, however, cut out the words from McDuffie's speech that would directly controvert their argument.
There are numerous approving citations of these reported quotations in the historiography. There is an absence of stern criticism. It would appear that academic historians thoroughly approve.