Nearly a century and a half after Robert E. Lee and the Confederates surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse, the Civil War is remembered for its unprecedented bloodshed and the abolition of slavery. What often goes unacknowledged is that during the war itself, steps were taken to create a more cohesive nation, fostered by legislation passed by the thirty-seventh Congress, which met between March 4, 1861 and March 4, 1863. Four pieces of legislation in particular—the Homestead Act, the Land-Grant College Act, the Pacific Railway Act, and the Anti-Bigamy Act—reflected the national government’s changing attitude about the western frontier and the use of public lands, and fundamentally altered Americans’ understanding of the nation’s obligations to its citizens, especially in light of overwhelming citizen sacrifice in war. Though the various pieces of legislation achieved varying degrees of success, they reflected and cemented political trends that would persist into the next century—they became what historian Leonard Curry calls a “blueprint for modern America.” The unique political situation of the Civil War molded the content and rhetoric of each bill—southern opposition had been removed from both houses of Congress, and every non-military ordinance competed with war-related measures for attention. The shrewd strategies of the thirty-seventh Congress typify the “art of legislating” that still captivates Americans nationwide (as demonstrated by the awards showered upon Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln). These laws constitute another legacy of the Civil War—certainly less dramatic than the realization of legal equality for African Americans, but as indicative of the period’s prevailing political spirit.
If the founders of the Republican Party primarily fought to curb the expansion of slavery, their constituents were concerned with a far broader range of political issues. This became evident at the 1860 Republican Convention—Pennsylvanian businessmen promoted protective tariffs; westerners, especially new immigrants, wanted a homestead act, which would provide federal land for cultivation; others desired a railroad that would reach the Pacific Ocean. According to biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin, that Lincoln was able to grasp the significance of placating a variety of interest groups helped him win the Republican nomination and the general election. These concerns evidenced ever-widening economic and social divisions between the country’s North and South, and Lincoln’s embrace of these issues meant that, when the South seceded, more states would be unwilling to abandon the Union.
Because westward expansion—and the concurrent expansion of slavery—had provoked so many political conflicts in the antebellum period, debates over the use of public lands during the war were particularly revealing. Even though southern slaveholders no longer carried political sway, politics remained overwhelmingly regional, and easterners and westerners maintained wildly different ideas about how public lands should be apportioned. Some politicians disparaged a system of land distribution that did not reward Union veterans, who were already serving and dying in shockingly high numbers. Others resented the “eastern monied interests”—the “railroad barons, land speculators, and swindlers” who would disadvantage individual settlers. These debates were inescapable as America continued to expand across the continent even during the war itself, extending the Nevada territory and acquiring the Arizona and Idaho territories. By successfully “balancing benefits to eastern and western interests,” lawmakers took steps towards uniting American citizens everywhere.
The notion of a homestead bill had been percolating in Congress long before the war began. Since the 1780s, the federal government had maintained control over the country’s western lands, and had distributed this land to its citizens without the interference of the states—even when, as the nation expanded, new states were admitted to the Union. As westward expansion became part and parcel of American national identity, homesteading became ever more appealing. Providing motivated citizens with public lands in the West that they otherwise could not afford, in exchange for working the land, was thus framed as a fulfillment of (what we would call now) the American Dream. In an 1858 speech, Andrew Johnson, then a senator from Tennessee, championed the “virtuous middle Americans” who sought an escape from corrupting urban areas. Nonetheless, some challenged the constitutionality of the low-to-nonexistent prices that the government hoped to charge, while eastern politicians feared that a bill would prompt a “mass migration” from their states (and significantly reduce their representation in Congress). Accordingly, though homestead legislation did pass both houses of Congress before the war, President Buchanan vetoed it.
When the thirty-seventh Congress began, Pennsylvania Representative Galusha Grow introduced a new homestead act. The full text can be found here. Though the bill was similar to previous iterations, this one provided “cash bounties” for veterans. Lawmakers repeatedly postponed a vote on the bill as they concentrated instead on statutes more directly relevant to the war, particularly economic measures. Shrewd proponents of the legislation emphasized the revenue that the act would generate and the resultant rise in the country’s credit, both of which would help the Union win the war and appear mighty in the eyes of the international community. Before the war, the inextricable entanglement of westward expansion and the extension of slavery had hindered the passage of a homestead act—now, the absence of Confederate slaveholders from Congress had removed this obstacle. Thomas Jefferson’s vision of America as a republic of independent yeoman farmers could become a reality. Because of this new rhetoric, as well as the changes to the bill’s content, the Homestead Act soundly passed both houses of Congress and became a law on May 20, 1862. By 1880, 1.7 million farms had been established—all outside the South, even after Reconstruction. Remarkably, the program endured until the last decades of the twentieth century, as the last homesteader settled in Alaska in 1985.
Get a closer look at the documents of Daniel Freeman, the first homesteader, here.
Just two months later, the Land-Grant College Act (proposed by Vermont Representative Justin Smith Morrill) was signed into law, even though the two had been deemed “mutually antagonistic,” as western public lands could either be awarded to settlers or set aside for institutions of higher learning, but not both. Once again, supporters’ strategic maneuvering was critical to the legislation’s passage. Instead of emphasizing educational reform, proponents underscored the economic benefits that would arise from the act’s passage, which could only help the war effort. Additionally, the legislation forced the new colleges to provide their young students with military training. The schools offered agricultural, engineering, and mechanical courses, underscoring crucial differences between the antebellum southern and northern economic systems, while maintaining that the increasingly mechanized, industrialized, free labor economy of the North was increasingly relevant.
The act’s use of public lands for public education was emblematic of an overarching trend during the war as the federal government began to take responsibility for obligations that had been the purview of state and local officials. Furthermore, by making higher education available to more students, creating more opportunities for upward social mobility, the law inherently “add[ed] to the fundamental democratization of American society.” Additionally, a more educated citizenry capable of making more informed decisions necessarily improved the functioning of America’s democracy itself. The program was certainly sluggish at first, but it created some enormously successful colleges across the country, like Cornell University, the University of California at Berkeley, and Iowa State University pictured above; and later legislation, like the Hatch Act in 1887 and a second land-grant college act in 1890, built upon its successes.
Unlike the Homestead Act and the Land-Grant College Act, a prior iteration of the Pacific Railway Act had never passed both houses of Congress, but it was included in every major party platform in 1860, and thus generated broader congressional support than the two previous bills. A transcontinental railroad would benefit western states more than eastern states, where there already was a network of interconnected railroads—which had helped Union forces defeat their Confederate opponents. The construction of a railway to the Pacific was easily justified as a “military measure” and any and all “constitutional scruples rapidly disintegrated.” The degree to which corporations determined the particulars of the legislation foreshadowed the ethos of the Gilded Age, as did the federal government’s larger role in effecting internal improvements. Indeed, writes Curry, “Time would demonstrate that the distribution of federal bounty could foster interests other than population expansion and public education, and that settlers and states were not the only possible recipients of this bounty.” Furthermore, as the country became physically connected, it necessarily united in spirit. The transcontinental railroad enabled even further continental expansion, and its construction provided jobs for thousands of new immigrants.
A final piece of legislation, also proposed by Justin Smith Morrill, illustrates the lasting legacy of the attempt to rectify the political divisions of the antebellum period and to centralize and unify the nation. In 1862, Congress passed the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act, outlawing the widely reviled polygamous marriages practiced by Mormons in the Utah Territory. Though anti-Mormon sentiment had been brewing for years, this was the first federal law to outlaw their most fundamental religious practice. Why did this issue become so important during wartime? According to Sarah Barringer Gordon, writing about the 1878 Supreme Court case Reynolds v. United States, which challenged the constitutionality of the Anti-Bigamy Act, the federal government sought to ban polygamy because it was considered a “sexual analogue to slavery.” That this threat to “traditional marriage” arose in a territory was also of paramount importance—in upholding the anti-bigamy statute, the Supreme Court was addressing the “dangers of fundamental moral difference by region” that had provoked the Civil War. Here, Congress, like the Supreme Court later, was not just balancing regional interests, but deliberately trying to minimize them. At the same time that Congress mandated this uniformity of sexuality, it cemented the place of the family at the center of nation’s moral code.
See the full text of Lincoln’s address here.
In his annual address to Congress in December 1862, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed, “Fellow-citizens, we can not escape history.” The members of the thirty-seventh Congress, though, did not relate to history merely as an inescapable force—instead, they proactively seized the unique historical moment presented by the Civil War to alter the essential nature of our country and its government.
For more information:
- Visit the U.S. History Scene reading list for the American Civil War