The Tribune reports Reasons for Secession

Horace Greeley was the editor of the New York Tribune, the nation's leading newspaper. Because it had the largest circulation and was generally regarded as the authoritative source of news, it served as the nation's newspaper of record, like Nile's Register before it and The New York Times in after years.

The Tribune also espoused the political views of the Republican Party. Those views fit well with Greeley's socialist ideas of a strong central government to protect and develop the nation. Some credited Greeley as "the father of the whole movement; for years it has been the nursling of his paper." "If this party succeeds," predicted the old National Whig, "its success will be monumental of the immortality of Horace Greeley; . . .."

On November 17, 1860, a few days after Lincoln's election, the Tribune published an article by its secret Charleston, South Carolina, correspondent reporting his views of the political situation in that city.

"As near as I can learn," said the correspondent, "a very practical view is taken by the people of South Carolina of the difficulty in which they are placed in the Union. I will try to give it."

He reported an interview he had with a planter "from Wadboo Bridge" who, he said, had a large plantation on Cooper River and owned 2,000 slaves. Wadboo Bridge was probably where the road (the present highway 402) crossed Wadboo Creek, a point about 29 miles North of Charleston as the crow flies.

"Why do you wish to go out?" asked the correspondent. "Lincoln may make a good and a just President."

"That is not the thing," replied the planter, "most of us planters are deeply in debt; we should not be if out of the Union. We should have a direct trade with Europe. We should get a better price for our cotton, and our goods would cost us 50 per cent less than now."

This was a precise and succinct statement of the true reasons for secession. The mathematical relationship between tariff rates and cotton prices confirms that his expectation of higher cotton prices was well founded.

Direct trade with Europe would have brought, among many other benefits, British iron at about half the cost of American iron.

The planter recognized the reality that the balance of power to control tariff rates had irrevocably shifted away from the South. "It don't make much difference what Lincoln does," he said. "We want to secede. We must do it now or never. If we don't secede now the political power of the South is broken."

To explain to the correspondent the effects of the shifting balance of power, the planter recounted how New England had lost its control of political power to the South and the West. "Once New-England was a power in the State," he said. "She made Congress pass just such laws as she pleased. She has had her Adamses, her Websters, and her Tariffs. What is she now? Merely New-England. No power; no one regards her. So it will be with the South if we do not go out now. I say we, for the South will go with us."

There were three factors that bore away southern political control. The population growth in the North in the 1860 census gave it more members in the House of Representatives. Several northern senators who voted with the South lost office in the 1860 elections. The country elected a president who would certainly sign the tariff bills demanded by his party. It meant that tariff rates would rise and cotton prices would plunge, impoverishing cotton planters who were already in debt because of the existing tariff.

That dismal reality contrasted starkly with the bright hope of prosperity in a separate southern confederacy whose trade with Europe was not hopelessly fettered by protective tariffs.

The planter explained his agency theory of the national government as a legal justification for secession. "The United States was nothing more than an agent," he said, "appointed by South Carolina and the other States, and now the agent has become master, tyrant, and dictator to the principals. The State won't stand it."

It was a weak theory of constitutional law. But it was the best the planter had. The real defect lay in the U.S. Constitution that permitted the national legislature to lay on heavy tariffs for the benefit of a few in the North at the cost of impoverishing the vast agriculltural industry. Against a northern government determined to crush rebellion by military might and impose heavy tariffs, the legal exercise was futile.

After reporting further the planter's explanation of his agency theory and his expectation of commercial prosperity, the correspondent concluded: "This ended the conversation, and I send it to you as correctly illustrating the opinions prevailing in this city with regard to the great question disunion."

Greeley's Tribune has added yet more highly credible evidence corroborating the reports of Hurlbut, Hosea and Carey that the tariff was the cause of disunion.

One historian, Allan Nevins, in volume 4, The Emergence of Lincoln, of his great work of the history of the Civil War, briefly quoted the planter's explanation that "We should get a better price for our cotton." But Nevins failed to follow up and ask, "Just how much better could he have expected it to be?" Ignoring all the other evidence, he concluded that slavery must have been the cause of the war. Following Nevins, British historian William R. Brock also briefly quoted the planter saying, the Cooper River magnate "declared that he favored secession in order to make more money."