Yesterday’s Disunion in the New York Times has a fascinating piece by Ben Tarnoff discussing the frustrating problems of the Confederate government in financing its war effort. Failed efforts at taxation and limited capital for borrowing in the South meant the Confederacy largely financed its war effort literally by printing money, a method that paid bills in the short run at the price of causing devastating inflation in the long run.
The central figure in Tarnoff’s piece is Christopher Gustavus Memminger, who became the Confederate’s first Secretary of the Treasury. Memminger attempted to institute a taxation system for the Confederacy principally based on real estate and slave property, the South’s two most important forms of wealth.
According to Ben Tarnoff:
Memminger wanted slave-owners to bear the brunt of the taxes. “The origin and character of the war in which we are engaged,” he declared, “would seem to make this species of property more particularly bound for its support.” After much foot-dragging, the legislators finally complied in August. They didn’t tax one kind of property more than another, however. Instead, they adopted a uniform rate — of one-half of one percent.
The tax turned out to be a fiasco. Sentiment against it ran high, contributing to delays in collection and resistance among the states. Relatively little revenue came into Memminger’s coffers as a result. The Confederacy had been founded on the principle of the sovereignty of the states; any attempt by the central government to assert itself, even to support a war fought for its survival, would be met with mistrust.
While the failed effort to collect taxes helped to doom the Confederacy, in attempting to justify the taxes Secretary Memminger offered a moment of unintentional candor about the South’s real reason for secession. In arguing that slaveholders were obliged to help pay for the war because it was being fought to preserve their property rights, Memminger explicitly acknowledged the Civil War really was about slavery. And the failure of slaveholders to pay taxes to the Confederate government, based on their land and slaves, besides demonstrating the aversion to taxes and central authority, demonstrates the beginning of a culture of denial in the South that the Civil War was about slavery that persists to the present day.