Developing Nation and Texas, 1820-1847

Author: Thomas Hart Benton  | Date: 1831

How the Federal Union Worked to the Injury of the South

To show the working of the Federal Government is the design of this view—show how things are done under it and their effect; that the good may be approved and pursued, the evil condemned and avoided, and the machine of government be made to work equally for the benefit of the whole Union, according to the wise and beneficent intent of its founders. It thus becomes necessary to show its working in the two great Atlantic sections, originally sole parties to the Union—the North and the South—complained of for many years on one part as unequal and oppressive, and made so by a course of Federal legislation at variance with the objects of the confederation and contrary to the intent or the words of the Constitution.

The writer of this view sympathized with that complaint; believed it to be, to much extent, well founded; saw with concern the corroding effect it had on the feelings of patriotic men of the South; and often had to lament that a sense of duty to his own constituents required him to give votes which his judgment disapproved and his feelings condemned. This complaint existed when he came into the Senate; it had, in fact, commencedin the first years of the Federal Government, at the time of the assumption of the State debts, the incorporation of the first national bank, and the adoption of the funding system; all of which drew capital from the South to the North.

It continued to increase; and, at the period to which this chapter relates, it had reached the stage of an organized sectional expression in a voluntary convention of the Southern States. It had often been exprest in Congress, and in the State legislatures, and habitually in the discussions of the people; but now it took the more serious form of joint action, and exhibited the spectacle of a part of the States assembling sectionally to complain formally of the unequal, and to them, injurious operation of the common government, established by common consent for the common good, and now frustrating its object by departing from the purposes of its creation. The convention was called commercial, and properly, as the grievance complained of was in its root commercial, and a commercial remedy was proposed.

It met at Augusta, Georgia, and afterward at Charleston, South Carolina; and the evil complained of and the remedy proposed were strongly set forth in the proceedings of the body, and in addresses to the people of the Southern and South-western States. The changed relative condition of the two sections of the country, before and since the Union, was shown in their general relative depression or prosperity since that event, and especially in the reversed condition of their respective foreign import trade. In the colonial condition the comparison was wholly in favor of the South; under the Union wholly against it. Thus, in the year 1760—only sixteen years before the Declaration of Independence—the foreign imports into Virginia were þ850,000 sterling, and into South Carolina þ555,000; while into New York they were only þ189,000, into Pennsylvania þ490,000; and into all the New England colonies collectively only þ561,000.

These figures exhibit an immense superiority of commercial prosperity on the side of the South in its colonial state, sadly contrasting with another set of figures exhibited by the convention to show its relative condition within a few years after the Union. Thus, in the year 1821, the imports into New York had risen to $23,000,000—being about seventy times its colonial import at about an equal period before the adoption of the Constitution; and those of South Carolina stood at 3,000,000—which, for all practical purposes, may be considered the same that they were in 1760.

Such was the difference—the reversed conditions—of the two sections, worked between them in the brief space of two generations—within the actual lifetime of some who had seen their colonial conditions. The proceedings of the convention did not stop there, but brought down the comparison (under this commercial aspect) to near the period of its own sitting—to the actual period of the highest manifestation of Southern discontent, in 1832—when it produced the enactment of the South Carolina nullifying ordinance. At that time all the disproportions between the foreign commerce of the two sections had inordinately increased. The New York imports (since 1821) had more than doubled; the Virginia had fallen off one-half; South Carolina two-thirds. The actual figuresstood: New York, fifty-seven millions of dollars; Virginia, half a million; South Carolina, one million and a quarter.

This was a disheartening view, and rendered more grievous by the certainty of its continuation, the prospect of its aggravation, and the conviction that the South (in its great staples) furnished the basis for these imports; of which it received so small a share. To this loss of its import trade, and its transfer to the North, the convention attributed, as a primary cause, the reversed conditions of the two sections—the great advance of one in wealth and improvements—the slow progress and even comparative decline of the other; and, with some allowance for the operation of natural or inherent causes, referred the effect to a course of Federal legislation unwarranted by the grants of the Constitution and the objects of the Union, which subtracted capital from one section and accumulated it in the other:—protective tariff, internal improvements, pensions, national debt, two national banks, the funding system and the paper system; the multiplication of offices, profuse and extravagant expenditure, the conversion of a limited into an almost unlimited government; and the substitution of power and splendor for what was intended to be a simple and economical administration of that part of their affairs which required a general head.

These were the points of complaint—abuses which had led to the collection of an enormous revenue, chiefly levied on the products of one section of the Union and mainly disbursed in another. So far as Northern advantages were the result of fair legislation for the accomplishment of the objects of the Union, all discontent or complaint was disclaimed. All knew that the superior advantages of the North for navigation would give it the advantage in foreign commerce; but it was not expected that these facilities would operate a monopoly on one side and an extinction on the other; nor was that consequence allowed to be the effect of these advantages alone, but was charged to a course of legislation not warranted by the objects of the Union, or the terms of the Constitution, which created it. To this course of legislation was attributed the accumulation of capital in the North, which had enabled that section to monopolize the foreign commerce which was founded upon Southern exports; to cover one part with wealth while the other was impoverished; and to make the South tributary to the North, and supplant to it for a small part of the fruits of their own labor.

Unhappily there was some foundation for this view of the case; and in this lies the root of the discontent of the South and its dissatisfaction with the Union, altho it may break out upon another point. It is in this belief of an incompatibility of interest, from the perverted working of the Federal Government, that lies at the root of Southern discontent, and which constitutes the danger to the Union, and which statesmen should confront and grapple with; and not in any danger to slave property, which has continued to aggrandize in value during the whole period of the cry of danger, and is now of greater price than ever was known before; and such as our ancestors would have deemed fabulous….

What has been published in the South and adverted to in this view goes to show that an incompatibility of interest between the two sections, tho not inherent, has been produced by the working of the government—not its fair and legitimate, but its perverted and unequal working.

This is the evil which statesmen should see and provide against. Separation is no remedy; exclusion of Northern vessels from Southern ports is no remedy; but is disunion itself—and upon the very point which caused the Union to be formed. Regulation of commerce between the States, and with foreign nations, was the cause of the formation of the Union. Break that regulation and the Union is broken; and the broken parts converted into antagonist nations, with causes enough of dissension to engender perpetual wars, and inflame incessant animosities. The remedy lies in the right working of the Constitution; in the cessation of unequal legislation; in the reduction of the inordinate expenses of the government; in its return to the simple, limited, and economical machine it was intended to be; and in the revival of fraternal feelings, and respect for each other’s rights and just complaints; which would return of themselves when the real cause of discontent was removed.

The conventions of August and Charleston proposed their remedy for the Southern depression, and the comparative decay of which they complained. It was a fair and patriotic remedy—that of becoming their own exporters, and opening a direct trade in their own staples between Southern and foreign ports. It was recommended—attempted—failed. Superior advantages for navigation in the North—greater aptitude of its people for commerce—established course of business—accumulated capital—continued unequal legislation in Congress; and increasing expenditures of the government, chiefly disbursed in the North, and defect of seamen in the South (for mariners can not be made of slaves), all combined to retain the foreign trade in the channel which had absorbed it; and to increase it there with the increasing wealth and population of the country, and the still faster increasing extravagance and profusion of the government. And now, at this period (1855), the foreign imports at New York are $195,000,000; at Boston, $58,000,000; in Virginia, $1,250,000; in South Carolina, $1,750,000.

This is what the dry and naked figures show. To the memory and imagination it is worse; for it is a tradition of the colonies that the South had been the seat of wealth and happiness, of power and opulence; that a rich population covered the land, dispensing a baronial hospitality, and diffusing the felicity which themselves enjoyed; that all was life, and joy, and affluence then. And this tradition was not without similitude to the reality, as this writer can testify; for he was old enough to have seen (after the Revolution) the still surviving state of Southern colonial manners, when no traveler was allowed to go to a tavern, but was handed over from family to family through entire States; when holidays were days of festivity and expectation, long prepared for, and celebrated by master and slave with music and feasting, and great concourse of friends and relatives; when gold was kept in desks or chests (after the downfall of continental paper) and weighed in scales, and lent to neighbors for short terms without note, interest, witness, or security; and on bond and land security for long years and lawful usance: and when petty litigation was at so low an ebb that it required a fine of forty pounds of tobacco to make a man serve as constable.

The reverse of all this was now seen and felt—not to the whole extent which fancy or policy painted—but to extent enough to constitute a reverse, and to make a contrast, and to excite the regrets which the memory of past joys never fails to awaken. A real change had come, and this change, the effect of many causes, was wholly attributed to one—the unequal working of the Federal Government—which gave all the benefits of the Union to the North, and all its burdens to the South. And that was the point on which Southern discontent broke out—on which it openly rested until 1835; when it was shifted to the danger of slave property.

Separation is no remedy for these evils, but the parent of far greater than either just discontent or restless ambition would fly from. To the South the Union is a political blessing; to the North it is both a political and a pecuniary blessing; to both it should be a social blessing. Both sections should cherish it, and the North most. The story of the boy that killed the goose that laid the golden egg every day, that he might get all the eggs at once, was a fable; but the Northern man who could promote separation by any course of wrong to the South would convert that fable into history—his own history—and commit a folly, in a mere profit and loss point of view, of which there is no precedent except in fable.


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Chicago: Thomas Hart Benton, "How the Federal Union Worked to the Injury of the South," Developing Nation and Texas, 1820-1847 in Great Epochs in American History, Vol.6, Pp.42-49 Original Sources, accessed January 20, 2019,

MLA: Benton, Thomas Hart. "How the Federal Union Worked to the Injury of the South." Developing Nation and Texas, 1820-1847, in Great Epochs in American History, Vol.6, Pp.42-49, Original Sources. 20 Jan. 2019.

Harvard: Benton, TH, 'How the Federal Union Worked to the Injury of the South' in Developing Nation and Texas, 1820-1847. cited in , Great Epochs in American History, Vol.6, Pp.42-49. Original Sources, retrieved 20 January 2019, from