Lincoln’s Civil War Congress (the 37th Congress)

The Acts of the 37th Congress: Lincoln’s Civil War Congress reshapes America

When the Thirty-Seventh Congress assembled on July 4, 1861 the future of the Union was in doubt. Eleven Southern states had seceded from the United States and joined the Confederacy. The first shots had been fired on Fort Sumter. Two weeks after Congress convened, the North would suffer its first major loss at the Battle of Bull Run. General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was poised within striking distance of Washington, D.C. Against this backdrop, with one third of the seats empty in the Capital, one might not expect many legislative accomplishments from the 37th Congress. Yet, Lincoln’s Civil War Congress succeeded in adopting some of the most significant legislation in American history.

According to Civil War historian James McPherson, “The thirty-seventh Congress did more than any other in history to change the course of national life.” In her Pulitzer Prize winning book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (2005), historian Doris Kearns Goodwin describes the 37th Congress as “extraordinarily productive.” As set forth below, the wartime policies adopted by the Republican dominated 37th Congress not only helped preserve the Union, but also advanced a wide ranging legislative agenda that would shape America for decades to follow:

Relieved of Southern Opposition, the Republican majority was able to pass three historic bills that had been stalled for years: the Homestead Act, which promised 160 acres of free public land largely in the West to settlers who agreed to reside on the property for five years or more; the Morrill Act, providing public lands to states for the establishment of land-grant colleges; and the Pacific Railroad Act, which made the construction of a transcontinental railroad possible. The 37th Congress also laid the economic foundation for the Union War effort with the Legal Tender bill, which created a paper money known as “greenbacks.” A comprehensive tax bill was also enacted, establishing the Internal Revenue Bureau in the Department of the Treasury and levying a federal income tax for the first time in American history.

Of course, the first order of business was to win the war. Lincoln summoned Congress for an extraordinary preliminary special session over the summer of 1860, asking his fellow Republicans to give him the “legal means for making this contest a short and decisive one.” Congress agreed, granting Lincoln wartime powers, backing his southern naval blockade, mobilizing the nation for war, and agreeing to the highly controversial suspension of the writ of habeas corpus. Click here for a discussion of the 1863 Act Suspending Habeas Corpus.

Capitol dome under construction in 1861

Acts of the 37th Congress: Set forth below is a stunning list of legislation adopted by the 37th Congress. As described by historian Leonard Curry, the Republican dominated “Blueprint for Modern America” was built around the following six Acts passed by the 37th Congress:

  1. Revenue Act of 1861 (12 Stat. 292): created the first Federal income tax of 3% on income in excess of $800. Click here for a more detailed discussion of the Act.
  2. Homestead Act of 1862 (12 Stat. 392): granted 160 acres of western land to anyone who farmed it for 5 years. The law sought to shape the West by populating it with family farmers. and established the Department of Agriculture. For over 20 years Southern pro-slavery forces had obstructed the bill out of fear that new homesteaders in the western territories would tip the scales in favor of abolition.
  3. Revenue Act of 1862 (12 Stat. 432): established the Department of Internal Revenue and provided for a graduated income tax with a 5% rate on income over $10,000. Additional taxes were imposed on luxury goods, alcohol, and other products.
  4. Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 (12 Stat. 489): promoted the construction of the transcontinental railroad which would run from Omaha, Nebraska to San Francisco, California. Click here for a more detailed discussion of the Act.
  5. Morrill Land Grant Colleges Act of 1862 (12 Stat. 503): provided funding for new colleges in each state (or improvements to existing colleges) from the sale of federal lands. Click here for a more detailed discussion of the Act.
  6. National Banking Act of 1863 (12 Stat. 665): established a national banking system of national chartered banks and a national currency. The Act also created the office of Comptroller of the Currency, required member banks to invest 1/3 of their capital in U.S. governmental bonds, and authorized member banks to issue National Bank Notes of up to 90% of their bond holdings.

Other important legislation adopted by the 37th Congress included:

  • The Act Creating the Department of Agriculture (12 Stat. 387): established the Department of Agriculture as a separate Department “to acquire and diffuse among the people of the United States useful information on subjects connected with agriculture. . . and to procure, propogate, and distribute. . . new and valuable seeds.” The Department would obtain Cabinet level status in 1889 (12. Stat. 387). A big supporter of the bill, President Lincoln described as newly created federal agency as the “People’s Department.”
  • The Legal Tender Act (12 Stat. 345): authorizing the issuance of $150M in paper currency that became known as “greenbacks.” The Act also provided for the issuance of $500M in bonds yielding 6%.
  • The District of Columbia Emancipation Act (12 Stat. 376): abolished slavery in the District of Columbia and allocated $1M to compensate the former owners and set aside $100,000 for former slaves who wished to emigrate to Haiti, Liberia or any other country. (A future post will explore the contrasts between this Act, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, and the 13th Amendment).
  • The Act to Secure Freedom to all Persons within the Territories of the U.S. (12 Stat. 432): outlawing slavery and involuntary servitude in the territories, or future territories of the U.S. By adopting the Act, the Republican party carried out its platform of restoring the Missouri Compromise and helped reject the Dred Scott decision.
  • The False Claims Act of 1863 (12 Stat. 696) (also known as “Lincoln’s Law”): imposing liability on federal contractors who defraud the government. Among other things, the Act allows private citizens to bring “qui tam”/whistleblower suits on behalf of the government to combat abuse. While having been updated over the year, the law remains on the books and has given rise to approximately $40B of recoveries.
  • The National Academy of Sciences Act (12 Stat. 806): incorporating the National Academy of Sciences, but providing that the Academy would not receive any compensation from the federal government.
  • The Medal of Honor Act (12 Stat. 623): authorizing the President to present medals of honor in the name of Congress “to such non-commissioned officers and privates as shall most distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action, and other soldier-like qualities, during the current insurrection.”

Taken together, the burst of economic legislation was consistent with the a full embrace of what had previously been called the “American System” proposed by Henry Clay and the now defunct Whig party. Under this economic philosophy, government-sponsored programs were intended to actively foster the nation’s agriculture, commerce, and industry, which represented the three most important sectors of the economy. Due to Lincoln’s support for Clay’s “American System,” historians have also labeled it the “Lincoln-Clay System” of internal improvements, protective tariffs and a national bank.

Legacy of the 37th Congress: As the Thirty-Seventh Congress ended its third session on March 3, 1863, Senator Charles Sumner reflected the work of the highly productive term. “Here is enough for an epoch.” As described by historian Michael Green, the 37th Congress successfully mobilized the North to defend the Union. “But it also passed legislation that dramatically shifted the federal government’s role and powers to deal with the war and its effects and set precedents for the future.”

Mark Twain observed that the Civil War had “uprooted institutions that were centuries old, changed the politics of a people, transformed the social life of half the country, and wrought so profoundly upon the entire national character that the influence cannot be measured short of two or three generations.” Click here for Twain’s book, The Gilded Age.

Richard Yates, the Governor of Illinois, commented in his January 2, 1865 message to the Illinois State Assembly that “The war…has tended, more than any other event in the history of the country to militate against the Jeffersonian idea, that ‘the best government is that which governs least.’ The war had not only, of necessity, given more power to, but has led to a more intimate prevision of the government over every material interest of society.”

Centralization of Power: Preserving the Union was certainly foremost on President Lincoln’s agenda, as the head of the newly constituted Republican Party, when he took office on March 4, 1861. In his inaugural address, President Lincoln sought to assure the South that he did not intend “to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists.” In Lincoln’s mind, he did not have the legal authority to interfere with slavery in the South, which was constitutional protected and embedded into the Constitution. Lincoln did proceed, however, prior to the Emancipation Proclamation, to abolish slavery in the territories and the District of Columbia.

When the Southern Democrats defected from Congress to join the Confederacy, Lincoln and his Republican colleagues saw the opportunity to pass the legislation that they long had advocated. Without opposition from southerners and northern Democrats, legislation which had been blocked for years sailed through the 37th Congress. The resulting “blueprint for modern America” centralized power in the federal government and transformed the United States, its economy, and society in ways that would have been unimaginable only years earlier.

As described by historian Heather Cox Richardson:

During the Civil War, Republicans transformed the United States… When Lincoln took office, the nation’s army had few than 16,000 men, and the new president’s first report from the Treasury listed only only four sources of income. The national government did little more than deliver the mail, collect tariffs, and oversee foreign affairs. By the time of Appomattox, the world had changed. Northerners were poised to spread across the continent on a transcontinental railroad; businesses had begun to operate on a national scale; and high tariffs bolstered manufacturing. Individuals gave their allegiance to a nation that not only held their investments, provided their currency, and promoted their economic welfare, but also claimed their hopes and pride with its promise to become “the greatest nation on earth.”

At the end of the Civil War, a strong central government was in firmly in place. The military had grown to over 1,000,000 troops. The national debt totaled over $2.5 billion and was supported by a broad array of new taxes which had previously been unthinkable. The expanding federal government would now print the national currency, support national infrastructure projects, and enforce new legal protections for former slaves, within state borders.

According to Richardson, Republican efforts were not haphazard. Rather, the GOP dominated 37th and 38th Congress intended to construct a new nation built on an updated legal framework for the postwar era. “The Republicans acted on a belief that the United States should become the wealthiest, strongest, and most egalitarian nation on earth.” Realizing the deep loses resulting from the bloody war, they understood that “the war would both compel and enable them to pass sweeping novel legislation to bring their optimistic vision of the nation’s future to life.”

Whigs had historically supported internal improvements such as roads and canals, along with high tariffs to promote domestic manufacturing. The Whig party was the political descendent of the original Federalist party. To the extent the Lincoln considered himself a political heir to Henry Clay, his political philosophy was in keeping with Alexander Hamilton’s robust and muscular views of federal power. In March of 1863, the New York Times opined that Lincoln’s new banking policies “crystalized . . . a centralization of power, such as Hamilton might have eulogized as magnificent.”

Abraham Lincoln wrote in 1860 that, “In the days of Henry Clay, I was a Henry Clay-tariff man and my views have undergone no material change on that subject. A campaign pamphlet from 1858 declared that “Mr. Lincoln stands on the Old Whig Platform, with Clay and Webster.” It was thus no surprise that Lincoln presided over the expansion of federal authority during his presidency.

During the Republican convention of 1860 which nominated Lincoln, the economic components of the party platform reflected both the Whig tradition of activism and the Democratic desire to promote individualism. The platform committed to “the complete and satisfactory homestead measure which has already passed the House.” The platform also supported “river and harbor improvements of a national character,” as “authorized by the Constitution and justified by the obligation of Government to protect the lives and property of its citizens.”

With regard to the proposed Transcontinental Railroad, the 1860 platform promised that “a railroad to the Pacific Ocean is imperatively demanded by the interests of the whole country; that the federal government ought to render immediate and efficient aid in its construction.” Click here for a link to the 1860 Republican Platform.

In his first Inaugural Address to Congress on December 3, 1861, Lincoln explained:

Agriculture, confessedly the largest interest of the nation, has not a department nor a bureau, but a clerkship only, assigned to it in the Government. While it is fortunate that this great interest is so independent in its nature as to not have demanded and extorted more from the Government, I respectfully ask Congress to consider whether something more can not be given voluntarily with general advantage…. While I make no suggestions as to details, I venture the opinion that an agricultural and statistical bureau might profitably be organized.”

Two and one-half years later, in what was to be his last annual message to the Congress, Lincoln said: “The Agricultural Department, under the supervision of its present energetic and faithful head, is rapidly commending itself to the great and vital interest it was created to advance. It is precisely the people’s Department, in which they feel more directly concerned that in any other. I commend it to the continued attention and fostering care of Congress.”

In sum, the Republicans of the 37th Congress did not merely embrace a powerful military necessary to win the war. The 37th Congress also approved a strong federal government that could win the peace. The resulting “Blueprint for Modern America” remade the federal government as never before.

Thus, as Congress acted to build up the military and tear down slavery, it sought a vigorous national government that would honor the memory of the hundreds of thousands of American lives that would be lost during America’s most deadly war. As Lincoln explained in his letter to Ms. Bixby, the mother of five sons who had “died gloriously on the field of battle”:

I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.

I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of Freedom.

Of course, the Bixby letter is memorialized in the movie Saving Private Ryan. The 37th Congress was no doubt motivated by a desire to honor the sacrifice that was being made during the Civil War upon the altar of Freedom. Interestingly, construction on the unfinished Capitol dome continued during the war. Its completion became a poignant symbol of the Union, visible for all to see during the darkest days of American’s most costly war.

Additional reading/sources:

Essential Civil War Curriculum (Virginia Tech)

Lincoln in the Classroom (Gilder Lehrman Institute)

Lincoln’s agricultural legacy (USDA)

Lincoln’s Emancipation Plan, Harry S Blackiston, Journal of Negro History, Carter G. Woodson, editor (1922)

Homestead Act (National Archives)

Curry, Leonard P. Blueprint for Modern America: Non-Military Legislation of the First Civil War Congress. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press (1968)

Richardson, Heather Cox. The Greatest Nation of the Earth: Republican Economic Policies during the Civil War. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press (1997)

Green, Michael S. Freedom, Union, and Power: The Mind of the Republican Party During the Civil War. New York: Fordham University Press (2004)

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