When the sectional conflicts moved from the Capitol to the battlefield, lawmakers in Washington got down to other business.
Arriving for a late-morning meal at Washington, D.C.’s celebrated Willard Hotel in 1856, Rep. Philemon Herbert, D-Calif., was told (and anyone who has pulled up to a fast-food drive-through at 11:05 a.m. will know the feeling) that the dining room was no longer serving breakfast. Rather than glumly ordering a burger, the enraged Democrat shot and killed the Irish head waiter who had broken the bad news—an act a jury found to be justifiable, allowing Herbert to live in freedom for another eight years before he died from wounds sustained at the Battle of Mansfield, La.
Such was the character of many who populated Congress in the years leading up to the Civil War, a hell-hath-no-fury set who frequently despised each other and whose attitudes about weaponry would make the National Rife Association blush.
Two years before the war, Congressman and future Union Gen. Dan Sickles, D-N.Y., shot and killed his wife’s lover—the son of “Star-Spangled Banner” author Francis Scott Key—escaping imprisonment by successfully employing the nation’s first temporary insanity defense. During the contentious debate over the Compromise of 1850, Sen. Henry Foote, D-Miss., pulled a gun on Sen. Thomas Benton, D-Mo.; Foote’s punishment, smacking of elementary school, was to have his gun locked away from him in a drawer. And, of course, Rep. Preston Brooks, D-S.C., famously beat Sen. Charles Sumner senseless with a cane on the Senate floor, after concluding the Massachusetts abolitionist wasn’t honorable enough to be simply shot to death by a Southerner.
Sickles would later blame the entire war on whiskey and Congress, and not necessarily in that order. Given this atmosphere in Washington, it is little wonder few things of note were accomplished by the federal government in the mid-19th century. Malice fueled gridlock, which fueled even more malice, predominantly between Northern and Southern legislators.
That logjam broke early in 1861 when representatives of seceding states packed up and headed home, leaving Congress in control of Northerners who, with the election of Abraham Lincoln as president, suddenly found themselves with significantly less opposition to progressive programs that had been blocked for years by Southern legislators and Southern-sympathizing presidents.
The result is both astonishing and largely overlooked, as history has understandably obsessed over the war itself. In fact, a convincing argument can be made that the years of 1862 through 1865 saw the enactment of a progressive legislative agenda that dwarfed even such heralded eras as the New Deal or Great Society. Not only did these years see the 13th Amendment and the end of slavery, they set into motion advancements in finance, transportation and education—initiatives that would fire the Second Industrial Revolution and propel a national network of small, agrarian communities into a world power dominated by titans of banking, commerce, science and information.
It was a dike waiting to burst, as Northern voices had increasingly called into question how progress could be blocked at every turn by a Southern minority they believed was being pandered to out of all proportion to its relevance. Following the attack on Brooks, William Cullen Bryant, writing in the New York Evening Post, chided, “Has it come to this, that we must speak with bated breath in the presence of our Southern masters?…Are we too, slaves, slaves for life, a target for their brutal blows, when we do not please them?” The North backed away from every conflict, it seemed, on the fear that the South was crazy enough to opt for mutual annihilation.
For its part, the South believed nothing short of its regional ideals were at stake and thought it within its right to use any means necessary to protect its interests. Southern papers saw nothing wrong with the behavior of Preston Brooks, and opined that it might be of value if a Sumner or his equivalent were caned every day.
Nowhere was the split between federal authority and states’ rights more apparent than in the world of finance, a factor that would go a long way toward deciding the war’s eventual winner. Jacksonian democracy had left no room for central banking, and when Andrew Jackson, the great populist president, dismantled the Second Bank of the United States three decades before the war, it was hailed in some circles as a victory for the common man over a ruthless monopoly. The ensuing Panic of 1837 might have appeared to prove otherwise, but on the eve of the war the nation was still without uniform financial standards and monetary control. And while states’ rights sounded good on the stump, the disorganized grab bag of decentralized banks made it terribly difficult to finance a war.
Lincoln put it in simple terms, predicting victory for the side that could raise the most cash. The problem for the North was that it had $2 million in the bank, $20 million in debt and its chief source of revenue, cotton tariffs, had just disappeared along with the Southern lawmakers. So Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase and the 37th Congress set to work on measures that would have had no chance had Southern legislators, who feared centralized power, still been seated.
On February 25, 1862, Congress authorized the sale of $500 million in bonds, which were sold with the help of Philadelphia financier Jay Cooke, allowing the government to pay for a war that would soon cost $1.5 million a day. But awkward questions of liquidity and practicality remained, weighty sacks of silver and gold presenting all kinds of logistical challenges during military campaigns. So Congress followed up with the Legal Tender Act of 1862, giving birth to the greenback—a national currency that was both convenient and relatively stable.
With debt floated and paper money circulating, investors and merchants naturally wanted to know one thing: Was the U.S. government good for it? That meant backing up the debt with revenue, which the Union accomplished by going on a tax-hiking bender. David Wells, chairman of the U.S. Revenue Commission in 1865, colorfully explained the North’s method of taxation by comparing it to an Irishman at Donnybrook Fair: “Whenever you see a head, hit it.” Correspondingly, during the war no product, animal, trade, service or profession went untaxed.
Congress also passed the first income tax in the summer of 1862, a temporary emergency measure that was repealed by the Grant administration but made a reappearance a half-century later with passage of the 16th Amendment, overturning an 1895 Supreme Court decision holding the tax to be unconstitutional.
The final piece was the rebirth of the national bank, which had been torn asunder in the 1830s under the banner of states’ rights. Lacking centralization and oversight, state banks had failed to maintain reserves adequate to protect against bad loans. Land speculation created bubbles that inflated and burst, taking their lenders down with them. Banks went in and out of business with startling rapidity, and financial institutions that survived longer than five years were the exception. Nor could the value of their notes be counted on, their worth generally decreasing the farther the holder traveled from the issuing bank.
The proliferation of banks, all issuing their own peculiar currencies, inspired rampant counterfeiting, and legitimate bank notes would often remain in circulation long after the issuing institution folded. Virtual field guides to currencies were published so the public could compare their money to illustrations to see whether it was worth anything.
As the South would eventually discover, a decentralized financial system held together with bailing twine and dependent upon the fiscal integrity of wildcat bankers would not stand under the stresses of war. Congress sought to solve these problems by creating a national banking system under the National Currency Act of 1863, a measure that also standardized the value and appearance of paper money.
National banks did not immediately catch on, and the banking law was tinkered with until independent banks were effectively taxed out of existence in 1866. But the foundation of a modern financial system was in place, one that is recognizable today as the cornerstone of the global economy. The dependability of the neighborhood bank, the soundness of the bills in wallets nationwide and the growth that is funded by public debt all spring from seeds planted during the Civil War. And it took the war to clear the path in Congress. As the late historian Leonard P. Curry wrote, “Secession, by removing most of the southern senators and representatives, had removed one of the most potent sources of sectional jealousy.”
Southern lawmakers, aided by the Southern sympathizer in the White House, James Buchanan, had also blocked another key piece of legislation that over the years has come to be most closely identified with the American ideal of a chance at property and independence for everyone, regardless of wealth or social status.
Perhaps the fundamental difference between the new and old worlds was land. In Europe, with land securely in the hands of the wealthy, the ownership of real estate was beyond the imagination of the masses. America, by contrast, had land to spare and the will to give it away. Before the war, homestead acts had been defeated either in Congress or by presidential veto. But with the bill’s enemies gone, Lincoln signed into law the Homestead Act of 1862, which awarded settlers quarter sections (160 acres) of land with low fees and minimal strings. The reason for Southern opposition had been relatively straightforward. Land owned and worked by family farmers would not be conducive to planters and their slave-based economy. Never mind Thomas Jefferson’s ideal of a nation of small farms; the Richmond Whig declared that there had not been “a more odious and iniquitous bill passed by any deliberative body on earth” than homestead legislation.
Indeed, a slave-based society could hardly imagine anything more threatening, because the law was probably the most egalitarian measure of its time. Free blacks could claim a share of federal land. So could women, and so could Native Americans and what today would be known as illegal immigrants, provided they declared their intent to become citizens. To seal the deal, claimants had only to farm the land for five years and build a 12-by- 14 home. (Lore has it that some people claimed the land and slapped down a 12-by-14-inch dollhouse, because the law did not specifically say “feet.”)
The law was effective in 1863, and a minute after midnight on New Year’s Day, a Union soldier staked his claim on Cub Creek in Nebraska. By the end of the war, 15,000 people—many of whom doubtless never dreamed of owning property—had become stakeholders in the American agrarian experience. That population swelled to 700,000 by 1904. They settled what would become the breadbasket not just of the nation, but the world.
Farming the land required a degree of agricultural knowhow, which in the coming years would be coupled with scientific and mechanical innovations that would increase productivity. At the same time, the labor that was leaving the factories for farmlands would have to be replaced, and some of the difference would be made up with new technologies and machines.
Visionaries began to sniff the coming Second Industrial Revolution and plan for its arrival. One of them was the abolitionist professor from Illinois, Jonathan Baldwin Turner, whose contributions to the American West were at once agricultural, industrial and educational. He is credited with developing the Osage Orange, a prickly shrub the was the precursor of the barb-wire fence, and inventing the machinery that prepared the soil and planted the seed for hedgerows. In a somewhat flamboyant pamphlet titled “Industrial Universities for the People,” Turner argued that an American education had to be more than “effeminate…book-learning,” and education that ignored physical, mental, social or moral aspects “will make mushrooms and monks rather than manhood and men.” Education, Turner believed, needed to get its hands dirty in the felds of agriculture and engineering. Was God wrong, he asked, when he placed Adam in a garden instead of an academy? He sought an institution that was truly going to benefit the young men who would be asked to take the nation’s next great step forward.
In Congress, Vermont legislator Justin Smith Morrill was listening. Morrill began his career as a retailer and went on to make a fortune in real estate, finance and railroads before winning a congressional seat in 1854. He proposed funding colleges that would serve the “sons of toil” by granting states 30,000 acres of land to endow what would be known as land-grant universities.
The idea, fumed Alabama Sen. Clement Clay, was “one of the most monstrous, iniquitous and dangerous measures which have ever been submitted to Congress.” His fellow Southerner, Virginia Sen. James Mason, said it was “an unconstitutional robbing of the Treasury for the purpose of bribing the states.”
Primarily the opposition rested with the funding mechanism (think earmarks), but ideas of modern agriculture and mechanization were not Southern priorities. Once again, Buchanan dipped his veto pen into the inkwell, and once again the measure passed only after the departure of Southern voices from Washington. Lincoln signed the Morrill Act into law in summer 1862, changing the face of American education for good.
Simply put, land-grant universities were America’s answer to higher education. “The zeal with which Old World educational philosophies and practices were drawn upon was equalled only by the freedom with which they were modified and adjusted to conform to New World attitudes and purposes,” wrote Earle D. Ross in his 1942 book Democracy’s College.
Today there are more than 100 land-grant universities, whose research (two-thirds of all research in the United States) has touched the lives of every American. In the words of the University of Georgia’s J. Scott Angle, “We reap the benefits of that investment each time we put safe food on the dinner table, draw clean water from the tap and send our children to play in a healthy environment.”
American democracy, Ross noted, was a product of the soil, a nation driven by a craving for land. So it was fitting, practically and metaphorically, that colleges were both formed out of the land and instructive in its use. As with the Homestead and Banking acts, Congress was unleashing the power of the great expanses of land through measures that would provide labor and capital for its productive use.
Now all that was needed was a way to speed settlement of the West and transport its bounty and resources back to eastern population centers. And the day before he signed the Morrill Act, Lincoln signed another piece of legislation to do just that. Just seven years after he authorized the transcontinental railroad, a shipment of Asian tea was making an historic journey that joined East and West in a way that, only three decades before, few had thought possible.
As with the other measures now sailing through Congress, the railroad acts has been held up by sectional differences—these dealing with the eventual route the road would take and, thereby, which region would most benefit. Noting that “the differences between northern and southern men” were no longer an issue, Missouri Rep. John Barret could barely contain his enthusiasm. From sea to shining sea, he said, American potential was as broad as the rising and setting of the sun. “This vast extension of territory (has) rendered the necessity absolute that some cohesive power or influence should be established which will unite more closely the newly extended limits and varied interests, and augment the resources, power, unity and defenses of this magnificent Republic,” Barret said.
That cohesive power would be the railroad and telegraph. It was seen as the perfect balance of guns and butter, opening up the West Coast and lands in between to commerce while knitting far-flung regions into a unified force to prevent greedy foreign nations from getting any bright ideas.
Northern, southern and central routes had been proposed, but for Southern lawmakers, the northern and central routes were nonstarters. Already fearful the North was determined to award it backwater status, the South viewed the more northerly options as one more slap in the face. In the end commerce, not politics, would draw the map, and a southerly transcontinental road would be only another decade in coming once the central route had been completed. But in 1861 only the exit of Southern lawmakers could break the congressional logjam.
Considering that the Union was burning through cash at a frightful rate to fund the war, the potential outlay of federal funds for the transcontinental railroad seems courageous, audacious and borderline insane. In today’s atmosphere of austerity, the railroad might never have stood a chance. Had it failed, the government would have been on the hook for the extraordinary cost, which in current dollars topped $2.5 billion. This was an unsettling thought, since many still felt the nation consisted of West and East coasts and a whole lot of uninhabitable desert and wilderness in between. Railroads needed people to make a profit, and much of the line would traverse a great, open void.
Supporters compared the situation to the Mississippi River Valley, which was sparsely populated until the arrival of the steamship. They pointed to the Western roads in Illinois and Missouri, where a fertile oasis of new homes and businesses blossomed along each new route. “We who live among and upon railroads know the magical effect that such improvements have upon the value of real estate,” Barret told his colleagues. Sure enough, it turned out that people had failed to populate the West because it couldn’t be tamed, but not because it could not be accessed.
On January 20, 1863, Gen. Ambrose Burnside began a rare winter campaign on the banks of the Rappahannock River in Virginia, and his army immediately sank into a quagmire of newly thawed earth. Confederates howled with laughter from the opposite shore and offered to float the Yanks pontoons, since they were making such a poor effort of it themselves. It might have been the Federals’ lowest point in the war.
But 12 days earlier and a continent away, the Central Pacific Railroad had broken ground on one of the most meaningful projects in American history. In another 13 years, the Transcontinental Express left New York and arrived in San Francisco 83 hours later. It was a trip that prior to the railroad would have taken anywhere from 40 to 200 days. The sleeping giant of the American West was now fully and energetically aroused.
The work of the war Congress is not all sunshine and light. Scandal rocked the railroad, land speculators gamed the Homestead Act and American finance has suffered setbacks that remain with us even today.
But even as bullets were flying and generals were being dragged by the ear back to Washington to explain their failures, Congress managed to parlay America’s vast landholdings into an economic and societal springboard that would make it the envy of the world. The American Dream was born of the Civil War—private property, the knowledge to make something of it, the capital to turn ideas into realities and the transportation to open up markets for these realities to become profitable were now within reach of the common citizen.
To be sure, the odds were not always good. Free blacks would struggle. Children toiled in oily factories and women would not have the vote for decades. Tenements teemed with destitute immigrants. But in history, there are few examples where the realm of possibility was so greatly changed in such a short time.
Lincoln assured his audience at Gettysburg that fallen soldiers had not died in vain. He spoke of the new birth of freedom, but in a very real sense that freedom transcended race and war and set all of America on a lighted path leading to a life that never before could have been imagined.
Tim Rowland is a history and outdoors writer, and a columnist for Herald-Mail Media in Hagerstown, Md.
Originally published in the November 2014 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.