Morrill Tariff Act (1861)


Important legislation that provided revenue for the Northern effort in the Civil War and expressed important principles of Republican political economy.

In the spring of 1860, Justin Smith Morrill, Republican of Vermont, proposed the tariff bill in the House of Representatives. Drafted to draw Northern industrial states to the Republican Party in that year’s election, Morrill’s bill was not an ordinary protective tariff that placed import duties on finished industrial goods. The act attempted to protect and support many sectors of the economy and all the regions of the country by placing tariff duties on agricultural, mining, fishing, and manufactured goods. Sugar, wool, flaxseed, hides, beef, pork, corn, grain, lead, copper, coal, and zinc all received protection by imposts, as did dried, pickled, and salted fish. In general, the tariff increased duties 20 percent on certain manufactured goods and 10 percent on specified raw materials. The bill reflected the Republican Party’s commitment to general economic growth and expressed its belief that business interests interacted harmoniously and positively in the economy.

The tariff also differed in that it distributed the burden of protection across society rather than placing it on specific regions or poorer classes. Morrill instituted a graded system of duties on a series of enumerated goods. The bill placed a 10 percent duty on goods considered necessities and a 20 percent impost on products that were less necessary. Congress authorized a 30 percent tax on luxury items based on their value. Morrill believed that this system did not gouge consumers but taxed their ability and willingness to pay.

The House passed the bill May 10, 1860, when Western states rallied to it. However, Southern opposition defeated it in the Senate. After December 1860 when South Carolina seceded from the Union, Congress passed the tariff bill on March 2, 1861. The government enacted the tariff to raise revenues during the Civil War.

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