Mr. Baker teaches in the school system in Lubbock, Texas.
The Civil War had just begun. The nation’s new President, Abraham Lincoln, had received the news of the bombardment of Fort Sumter with a great deal of trepidation. Now it was his turn to act. But what to do? How best to meet this challenge to the armed might of the United States of America? Shortly after the news of Fort Sumter reached Lincoln, he had closeted himself in conference with the venerable hero and Chief of Staff, General Winfield Scott. As usual, Scott had some answers.
One of Scott’s solutions particularly struck home with the new president. During the course of their meeting, General Scott had repeatedly emphasized the necessity of forming a naval blockade of all the Southern ports in order to isolate the fledgling Confederacy and cut off their foreign trade. And, while this would be an expensive maneuver involving hundreds of ships and thousands of men, it would be essential in weakening and curbing as quickly as possible the armies of the rebellion.
The reasoning behind this was very simple: besides being the oldest tactic in military history—tried, tested, and proven—it stood to reason that the fewer imports a nation (or city) receives from outside sources the worse off it becomes economically and, thus, militarily. Military experts had always realized that trade and commerce were the lifeblood of a nation and that the sooner it could be stopped the better it was for the opposing side. Such a blockade, Scott realized, would spell doom to the enemy.
So on April 19, 1861, Abraham Lincoln, along with General Winfield Scott, devised the blockade that would be put into effect as soon as possible. This plan, which later became known as the "anaconda plan," was to prove instrumental in crushing the life out of the vibrant Southern economy. In no time at all Admiral Porter of the Union navy had put the paper plan into effect. He would make the South writhe and groan until they would eventually have to sue for peace. In later years the Supreme Court declared the "anaconda plan" as the official beginning of the War Between the States.
As the Union ships were engaged in the vital task of squeezing the enemy dry, what were the President and the Congress doing back home? Why nothing other than devising elaborate and prohibitive tariff schedules in order to keep the "invasion" of "foreign" products out of the Union! Imports would surely destroy the Northern cause, they reasoned. What the North needed most of all was "protection." So while Union ships blockaded the South by sea, the honorable Congress was doing the same thing to the North at home. What Southern sea captains could never once accomplish in four years of war, the Congress did for them in a matter of weeks by political action.
The Blockade of the North
Barriers to trade rose higher than ever before in the attempt to "protect" the North. Confederate ships were therefore freed to prowl the lanes further out on the high seas since the boys in Washington were doing such an admirable job without them. They could now have more leisure to ferret out those few merchantmen who were officially allowed through the lines. They could also find more of those who simply chose to bear the risks of smuggling goods into Yankee ports and hamlets. In this respect Confederate vessels actually found themselves as enforcers of the Congressional mandate of restricted trade! Confederate raiders made no distinction between "legal" or "illegal" trade.
What is often neglected in the history of the Civil War is not the "blockade runners" of the South who have received plenty of plaudits for their daring exploits, but the "blockade runners" of the North who had their work cut out for them by attempting to slip the blockade of the Northern coast by Northern ships and customs agents that their own Congress had imposed upon the country at the very beginning of the war.
Apparently the logic of the situation never once dawned upon the President or the Congress that acted so hastily to put his economic plans into effect. If the North was "protecting" Union industry from the evil effects of international trade by Congressional action, wasn’t it doing the same by anchoring warships off Southern ports for better than three thousand miles? The story of Haman, who unknowingly built his own gallows, could not have been more ironic!
And when the tariff blockade seemed to be developing leaks, Congress merely tightened the garrote a bit tighter around the North’s windpipe, thus choking off needed manpower and supplies which Europe had to offer. All the while this little tragicomic charade was going on, there were actually Union leaders who felt that more warships were needed to blockade the South in order to catch the blockade runners who were slipping through the net.
What the Congress should have done in order to be consistent with their own untenable economic doctrines would have been to recall every Union ship, scrap the blockade, and let the South kill itself from the "invasion" of "foreign" goods which would surely "glut" the domestic market, thus "flooding" the Southern economy with products which would destroy business and bring the war to a hasty conclusion!
Fortunately for the North, the Union navy was more efficient in destroying the Southern trade than the Congress was in choking off Union supplies. But try as they might, the politicians in the capital could not outshine the navy on the high seas. It is true that the solons inflicted incalculable damage upon the Northern market during the course of the war. But the few Northern ships that were assigned to blockade the Northern coast simply could not inflict the kind of damage to Union-bound shipping that their more numerous colleagues assigned to block the Southern coast could inflict upon the South. As a result, the North floundered along without the full benefits of trade with a Europe that was more than willing to provide the materials so desperately needed to terminate the war.
Continuing War on Trade
Most historians dwell at great length upon the comparative advantages of the North over the South during the Civil War. That which usually receives the greatest emphasis is the higher productivity and resources of the North. And while all this is true, it fails to consider the resources and productivity that could have been available had free trade been allowed. In effect it is not so much the pounding that the South gave the North during the war, but rather the pounding which Congress gave the North, by depriving itself of the benefits of free trade, that deserves more attention.
Today warships continue to prowl the coastlines and to ply the lanes of commerce in order to "shield" the nation from the "invasion" of Australian beef, Japanese steel, and so forth. Even in this modern age the old trade-is-war doctrine continues to guide national policy. The United States continues to look at "foreign" goods as a calamity to be avoided at all costs. Recent broadsides against the market prove that the spirit of tyranny and war still lives in the hearts and the minds of the "planners" and policymakers. These bombast" seem to come ever closer to the waterline of the market and its functions. Yet, in spite of it all, the market continues to operate—if at a much reduced level of efficiency.
This attempt to bring the economics of warfare to the market has resulted in untold misery for all of mankind who stand to benefit from the cosmopolitanism of the free market. This perpetual assault on trade and the well-being it brings has offered, instead of a vast cornucopia of wealth, the specter of the pale horse and the pale rider of war and man-made famine. The doctrine of "protectionism" has never resulted in anything other than planned chaos. Nor is this a doctrine that has sprung up full grown from the ashes and motivations of the War Between the States. As far back as the days of the Greek Herodotus in the fifth century B.C. we are told that it was against the law for anything that was of Athenian origin to be brought into a certain Greek temple. Only "native" pottery would do. "Protectionists" were alive and well in his day too.
It is no different in our day. We still hear arguments about the "evils" of "foreign" products, arguments which were exploded by economists generations ago. We still hear preached as official ideology the tragedies and horrors of allowing the market to "flood" us with a "glut" of "cheap" goods which the international (foreign) market has to offer. We see farmers blocking roads on the Mexican border, attacking trucks as policemen stand by and sympathetically witness the carnage. We see organizations of such men who call themselves "soldiers" (in the true spirit of warfare) pleading for "sympathy and understanding" from their fellow citizens. We hear the neat little clichés that are intended to take the place of ideas and intelligent thought. We hear the martial strains of propaganda telling us to "rally round the flag." After all it is "Our America."
The tones and pleas of the petty provincialists of trade restriction have not changed one bit over the eleven decades since the Civil War. Neither have the effects of their policies which continue to be a blight upon men and an assault on intelligence wherever and whenever such doctrines are implemented. The war on the market—and thus civilization—goes on.
Native pottery only, please!