Joshua Giddings, the Tariff and Slavery

Joshua Reed Giddings, a U.S. Congressman from Ashtabula, Ohio, and his political mentor, John Quincy Adams, were the two leading radical anti-slavery men in the Congress. Giddings' April 28, 1844 letter to his son, Joseph Addison Giddings, is important because it clearly revealed the tariff motive of the anti-slavery conspiracy. The text of this letter, along with its surrounding political circumstances, is helpful for understanding the mechanism that caused the Civil War.

Giddings was in Washington, D.C., giving political news and instruction to his son in Ashtabula. Joseph was following his father's footsteps into the law and had stepped up to edit the Ashtabula Sentinel, the local Whig political newspaper, as his father had done before him. Young Joseph was a working gear in the Whig political machine.

From his seat on the floor of Congress, Giddings had an inside view of the delicate balance of power on issues such as the tariff and internal improvements. The Whigs had come to national power in the 1840 elections and had enacted their tariff in 1842. Now the presidential elections of 1844 were approaching and the Whigs were in danger of losing their balance of power to control the tariff.

Giddings knew that if slave-state Texas were admitted to the Union, the senators and representatives from that state would vote against the tariff. It would be enough to tilt the balance away from the Whigs. Ohio Whigs, Giddings realized, must be awakened to the imminent danger and must be energized to agitate against the admission of Texas. For this reason, he knew he must emphasize to his son the importance of anti-slavery for its relation to the tariff and internal improvements.

At the time Giddings wrote, Texans and many southerners wanted Texas admitted to the Union. On April 21, 1836, after several years of fighting, Texans had won their independence from Mexico by defeating Mexican army forces at the battle of San Jacinto. In October of that year General Sam Houston began his first term as president of the new republic. In the next year, the independence of the Republic of Texas was formally recognized by the United States, followed by France in 1839 and Britain in 1840.

In 1840, William Henry Harrison was nominated by the Whig party as their presidential candidate over Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, who were seen as un-electable. Harrison's fame as a national war hero in the War of 1812 with Britain gave him a popularity that bore him to the presidency in the 1840 elections. The victorious Whigs saw him as a politically pliable tool who would follow the wishes of Congress in economic legislation. Harrison, however, died after only a month in office, leaving the office to Vice-President John Tyler, a Virginia Whig.

Tyler, although a Whig, was more of a southerner in his economic principles. He vetoed Whig economic legislation. He did, however, finally sign the 1842 protective tariff bill into law. However, he began to work for the annexation of Texas to the Union. Texas, with its extensive cotton lands open to slave labor, would add political strength to southern representation on economic matters in Congress. The Whigs had exulted after their accession to power in 1841 and had looked forward eagerly to a strong national program of protective tariffs to encourage domestic industry and the appropriation of tariff funds for river and harbor improvements.

Now, bitter with disappointment at what they regarded as the "traitorous" obstruction of their program by John Tyler the southerner, they looked nervously toward the presidential election of 1844. They feared that the annexation of Texas would add two more cotton state senators to the tariff-obstructing political power of the South.

Giddings' interests lay in the city of Ashtabula, a few miles west of the Pennsylvania state line on the southern shore of Lake Erie by the mouth of the Ashtabula River. The citizens there longed for massive sea walls to be installed by the federal government out in Lake Erie to protect the ships' anchorage against the fierce north winds that sweep down from Canada across the lake, building up large waves that smashed shipping anchored at Ashtabula. Not only did they want this for Ashtabula, but they wanted it also for the numerous other cities on the lake with which Ashtabula was connected in maritime commerce.

Federal expenditures for improvement of harbors on the northern and western lakes were Joshua Giddings' special interest. On January 12, 1844, he made an eloquent speech in the House of Representatives, pleading for federal funds for the development of harbors. There were very few good natural harbors such as existed at Erie, Pennsylvania, where Presque Isle sheltered ships from the lake storms.

"For the want of harbors to protect our shipping," he complained, "our vessels are wrecked, our property destroyed, and the lives of our seamen are sacrificed." He detailed the losses of steamboats and schooners. He cited an "official report" on the losses which said, "this loss is the more to be deplored, as it could in a great measure have been prevented by the timely construction of a few additional harbors." "The estimated loss during the year 1842," he said, "was over half a million dollars. Thus, many of our people were reduced to poverty by those disasters which doomed so many others to watery graves." (Speech of Mr. Giddings, of Ohio, Congressional Globe, Appendix, 28th Cong. 1st. Sess. January 12, 1844, p. 289)

The losses to storms were not the only inconvenience. Where there were not deep harbors waiting to accommodate large ships, those ships had to lie off shore and wait to be unloaded a piece at a time by small lighters. Moreover, that could only occur when the lake was calm. When a strong onshore breeze came up, the waves would disrupt the unloading. "In this manner," said Giddings, "they are frequently detained for a great length of time."

These were "the losses in time and the expense which western people are compelled to bear," said he, "in consequence of our refusing to them the protection which we extend to our eastern friends upon the Atlantic." "I say, sir," he charged, "that these losses arise principally from our neglect, and such is the undeniable fact."

Giddings told of his own experience in 1814, before any improvements were made. "I, myself, have been stopped upon the bar at mouth of the Huron river on Lake Erie, while endeavoring to enter it in a small boat, with not more than twenty barrels salt on board. We had to take the salt on shore by hand, then hoist our boat over the bar, re-load, and proceed up the river to our destination." "These harbors," he complained, "received no attention from government until the year 1826. "From that period up to 1828, yearly appropriations were made for the purpose of improving them." This, of course, was during the administration of Federalist John Quincy Adams who favored internal improvements.

"With a change in administration, however, the policy changed completely at the 3rd Session of the Twenty-Fifth Congress and internal improvements were abandoned in the face of "many doubts and constitutional difficulties." "[T]he tools and implements purchased by government, for the purpose of carrying on these improvements," Giddings complained, "were subsequently sold at auction, and our lake commerce was apparently abandoned forever." The wooden walls and piers were disintegrating and the channels were filling with sand. Help was needed, while money was wasted, he alleged, on a magnificent navy and archaic army fortifications.

Giddings was anguished. ". . .Congress has disregarded our rights and our interests," he said, "and permitted our lake shores to be strewn with the wrecks of our ships and the bodies of our seamen. Sir, shall this state of things continue another year? How long shall our people be compelled to witness the destruction of their property, the ruin of their fellow-citizens, and this vast annual sacrifice of life, while their money is drawn from them to support a splendid navy, to maintain an idle army, and to erect useless fortifications."

"I regard the protection of the lives of our sailors and passengers to be vastly more important than the piling up earth and stone on various parts of the Atlantic coast, there to remain as so many monuments of our want of foresight, and to be visited in coming time as the curious remains of a dark and ignorant age." (Speech, 290)

Giddings' speech well reflected his constituents' intense desire for harbor improvements. With the accession to power of the Whigs in the 1840 elections, Ashtabula citizens had seen federal harbor improvements almost within their grasp. The untimely death of President Harrison and ascent to the presidency of a southern man was to them an enormous tragedy. Now they were "on pins and needles," waiting to see what would happen in the fall elections. Would they annex Texas and shift the balance of power against the tariff?

Henry Clay, the Kentucky senator and Whig presidential hopeful, was the leading advocate of a program of protective tariffs and internal improvements. He had finally announced a position on the annexation of slave-state Texas. For Clay, it was an uncomfortable position. Although a slave owner in a slave state, he recognized that the admission of Texas as a slave state would shift the balance of power against his favorite political program.

"He is flat footed against annexation," announced Giddings in the April 28 letter to his son Joseph.

Van Buren, the former Democratic president who had been defeated for a second term in the 1840 elections, was also a presidential hopeful in an uncomfortable position. Although a Democrat, he was a northerner with many constituents who disliked the idea of a shift of power to the South.

"He regards annexation as Constitutional," wrote Giddings, "But for the sake of consistency thinks it ought not to be admitted while at war with Mexico, but leaves that question to the people to be decided at the Coming election and making that issue the great and paramount issue at the Nov[ember] Contest." "This is as it should be," agreed Giddings. For Van Buren, it was a convenient avoidance of what was for him a a vexing political problem.

Giddings worried about the unanimity among his own party. "And the only fear I now have," he said, "is will the Whigs march up unflinchingly to that question." "For it is the great question of slavery or liberty. Will we extend slavery or will we promote liberty & freedom."

Texas, it should be pointed out, was already a slave state. Excluding Texas from the United States would not free the slaves already there nor would it make anyone a slave who was not already a slave. Excluding Texas from the Union would make it more difficult, not less, for citizens in the U.S. to "promote liberty & freedom" there.

Annexing Texas would not make anyone a slave who was not already a slave. It would not really "extend" slavery to where it did not already exist. Annexing Texas, however, would make it easier for U.S. citizens to travel there. There would be no international border to cross. Moreover, Texas representatives sitting in Congress, members from other states would have the opportunity to convince the Texas representatives to free their slaves.

Giddings, however, was not concerned about the welfare of Negroes in Texas. Not one bit. He got very quickly to his sole concern. "To give the South the preponderance of political power," he warned, "would be itself a surrender of our Tariff, our harbor improvements, our distribution of the proceeds of the public lands in that it would be a transfer of our political fare to the slave holders and a base and degrading surrender of ourselves to the power & protection of slavery." "It is," he said, "the most abominable proposition with which a free people were ever insulted."

The astute Giddings recognized that the addition of slave-state Texas to the Union would shift the balance of power in the Senate to the South and the interests of southern agriculture. Two more votes against the tariff and internal improvements could result in a horrible reversal of fortune for the high-tariff Whigs. This was exactly why northern tariff men agitated against slavery--to stave off the entry of new western slave states that would shift the balance of power on the tariff.

Giddings was, like most northern Whigs, under the breathtaking delusion that high taxes, trade restriction and heavy government spending were associated with "liberty & freedom" and that low-tariff economic freedom itself was "the most abominable proposition with which a free people were ever insulted." It was quite the other way around, which is why the South was so desperate to extend southern agriculture to new states in the West.

To Giddings, the tariff was Ashtabula County's "political fare," that is, the political food for their consumption. Giddings thought not one bit about the cost of that "political fare" and from whose pocket the money for it must be taken. It would come from the pockets of cotton and tobacco planters, three times multiplied. Giddings was, like all his northern allies, unthinking and unconcerned about the actual effect of the heavy taxation and resulting cotton and tobacco revenue losses on the actual welfare of southern slaves.

Ashtabula would probably have been better off without the tariff and financing their harbor improvements with bond issues sold to now wealthy southern planters and amortized over years with docking fees.

The Giddings letter stands as excellent evidence that the anti-slavery-extension agitation was solely about the tariff.

The Clay and Van Buren announcements were somewhat of a relief to Giddings. "We begin to breathe a little freer here since Mr. Clay & Mr. VB came out. We not think it will not be annexed this session. or until the people shall have an opportunity to speak."

At the November elections that year, the people did speak. They returned the Democrats to power in Congress and southerner James K. Polk of Tennessee was elected President. In 1846, the tariff was substantially reduced and President Polk vetoed the Rivers and Harbors bill. Southern cotton revenue tripled in a few short years and the South was prosperous. The disconsolate northern Whigs retired to scheme about getting the balance of power back to the North so they could get their tariff and internal improvements back.

Joshua Giddings and Slavery at the 1860 Republican National Convention

In 1860, Giddings attended the Republican national convention in Chicago as a delegate from Jefferson, Ohio. He was present when the party platform was reported. The enthusiastic audience demanded that some of the planks be read twice. "Pennsylvania," reported Murat Halstead of the Cincinnati Commercial, "went into spasms of joy over the 'Tariff Plank,' her whole delegation rising and swinging hats and canes."

David Cartter of Cleveland, Ohio, rose to immediately cut off debate and pass the platform. "That report is so eminently unquestionable from beginning to end, and so eloquently carries through with it its own vindication," he said, "that I do not believe the Convention will desire discussion upon it, and I therefore call the previous question upon it." "Calling the previous question" would eliminate further amendments and debate.

Giddings rose and appealed to Cartter to withdraw his motion so Giddings could submit an amendment to the platform. Cartter refused, but the convention voted down his move to limit debate.

Giddings then proposed to add to the first plank "as a declaration of principles, the following:"

That we solemnly re-assert the self-evident truth that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among which are those of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness [cheers]; that governments are instituted among men to secure the enjoyment of these rights.

Cartter interrupted him, starting to speak. "Mr. President, I . . .."

Giddings cut him off. "My colleague will ask no favors of me, I take it." Some members of the convention broke out in applause.

"I will detain the Convention but a moment, said Giddings. He then made a short speech on the philosophy of his amendment:

Two hundred years ago the philosophy of Europe declared to the world that human governments were based on human rights, and all Christian men have sustained that doctrine until the meeting of this Convention. Our fathers were impressed with this all-permeating trust, that right of every human being to live and to enjoy that liberty which enables him to obtain knowledge and pursue happiness, and no man has the power to withhold it from him.

Some of the delegates here interrupted Giddings with prolonged applause. When it was done, he continued.

Our fathers, impressed with this solemn truth, laid it down as the chief corner-stone, the basis upon which this Federal Government was founded. By consent of all parties, the Supreme Court included, these were the permeating, life-giving, vitalizing principles of the Constitution. It is because these principles have been overturned, denied and attacked by our opponents, that we now exist as a party.

Giddings was interrupted by cheers from the delegates. He continued:

At Philadelphia we proposed and expounded this issue to our opponents. We called upon them to meet it. They put forward the Supreme Court to meet it. That Court denied those principles, but the Democratic party, to this day, dare not meet them; and through that campaign, and for four years, no Democrat has stood before the world denying those truths, nor will they deny them. Now I propose to maintain the doctrine of our fathers. I propose to maintain the fundamental and primal issues upon which the Government was founded. I will detain this Convention no longer. I offer this because our party was formed upon it. It grew upon it. It has existed upon it, and when you leave out this truth you leave out the party.

Some of the delegates responded with loud cheers.

Cartter rose and responded, "The only reply I wish to make to this amendment and the gas expended upon it, is in the second clause of the report, which reads as follows: "That the maintenance of the principles promulgated in the Declaration of Independence and embodied in the Federal Constitution, is essential to the preservation of our republican institutions; and that the Federal Constitution, the rights of the States and the union of the States must and shall be preserved."

Eli Thayer of Massachusetts, now serving as a delegate from Oregon, spoke in favor of Giddings' amendment. Thayer had organized the New England tariff men into the Emigrant Aid Society which funded northern-minded emigrants to Kansas to shift the balance of power there toward the North.

The delegates defeated Giddings' amendment in a voice vote.

Murat Halstead reported what Giddings did next:

The old man quickly rose, and made his way slowly toward the door. A dozen delegates begged him not to go. But he considered everything lost, even honor. His Philadelphia platform had not been reaffirmed. The twin relics were not in the new creed. And now the Declaration of Independence had been voted down! He must go. He got along as far as the New York delegation, where he was comforted by assurances that the Declaration would be tried again; but he left the Convention-actually seceded-in sorrow and anger."

Giddings had for many years been marching against the Slave Power under the banner of liberty and pursuit of happiness for the slaves. He did not want to see the banner so lightly affirmed now that the Republicans, sensing victory, had their tariff and internal improvements along with the limitation of the westward march of slavery in the platform.