There was a student in one of my American history classes a few years back that epitomized the classic underachiever- sat in the back, non-disruptive, did only what was asked of him and no more, gliding by with a soft “C” all year long. However once a quarter he would chime in with an insightful or provocative comment/question that reverberated throughout the classroom. As if to say to all the “high flyers” in the class ‘I can go toe to toe with any of you whenever I want.’
During a classroom discussion late that year on identifying reoccurring themes in American history this student’s time had come for the quarter to speak up after listening to his fellow classmates suggest themes like “conflict” and “inequality”.
Without raising his hand he said, “It seems like the one big question we constantly deal with is- What is the proper role of government to its people? And furthermore, should that role be constant or should it be allowed to change depending on the times?”
It was a fantastic question for anyone to ask let alone a sixteen year old because it encapsulated a thorough dissection of our history as a nation. Every generation attempts or has attempted to answer this simple question and its logically follow-up question.
The Civil War in large part was the inevitable outcome of an American generation that could not agree on the answer to this question. As a consequence, the war’s impact would be felt by all Americans in ways that were unimaginable at the time. For starters, the role of our federal government expanded like never before. In many respects the federal government of 1865 was almost unrecognizable in comparison to our federal government in 1861. This went beyond merely propagating a war, indeed it was almost as if the collective northern leadership in Congress realized the uniqueness of their political environment and decided to act on it.
If there was a silver lining that came with secession it could be seen with the increase speed at which legislation was passed and political business was conducted in an around the Capitol. The southern delegation no longer existed. The northern political agenda was in full swing with little to no opposition. Nowhere was this more apparent than in westward expansion.
Beginning in the 1850s the federal government began to cede large tracts of land to the railroad industry in the hopes of uniting America by rail from coast to coast. The issue of slavery’s expansion however remained unresolved; as a result the goal of a smooth and successful process associated with the emergence of the transcontinental railroad system became bogged down in the political infighting between northern and southern politicians. The business world operates best in stable climates. Unfortunately for the railroad industry there was nothing stable about America in the 1850s where territories like Kansas earned the nickname ‘Bleeding Kansas’.
The war transformed our government’s role and its relationship to the public well beyond the obvious examples of conscription, suspension of Habeas Corpus, creation of an income tax and the increase of power of the presidency. What unfolded out West during the Civil War was truly remarkable. . .
The U.S. government put a premium on needing to ensure that the Union remained unified throughout its states and territories. Part of the answer was found with the railroad industry. And unlike the 1850s the railroads no longer needed to wait on the politics of slavery.
The Railroad Act(s) of 1862 turned huge tracts of western land over to the industry and guaranteed interest on associated bonds at very competitive rates. These acts made the transcontinental system a fait accompli- between private and public investment too much money was involved, not to mention the fact that it was deemed vital for national security. In order to further underwrite the railroads and calm any fears within the industry and from potential investors that this venture of a transcontinental railroad was too risky and pricey Congress passed the Homestead Act the same year (Homestead Act actually was signed into law first). Never had a government made it so easy for its people to own free land- one needed only to be head of the household, be at least 21 years of age, and live on land (160 acres) for five years. Would-be settlers that in the 1850s may have been reluctant to migrate West for fear of either pro-slavery factions, concerns over popular sovereignty or that there existed no reliable infrastructure to transport their crops to market and back East now had an ally in the U.S. government. Furthermore, in order to help facilitate the American settler out West our government expanded with the creation of the Department of Agriculture in yes, that is right. . . 1862. In sort of a perverse way one could argue that without secession this process of western expansion would have been far more arduous; requiring copious amounts of political capital to spent by both the North and South alike.
The secession of the Confederate states came about because it felt that the federal government was becoming “heavy-handed” with its powers outlined under the Constitution. The election of Abraham Lincoln was the tipping point. What is ironic is that by seceding the Confederacy guaranteed that the institution of slavery would be once and for all abolished in the United States. Moreover, after the war the South returned to a far more formidable federal government. The federal government had formalized a legitimate plan for westward expansion. By 1865 Kansas, West Virginia and Nevada had been admitted as states and territories had been set up in the future states of Colorado as well as the Dakotas.
The Civil War changed the relationship between our federal government and the people of the United States managing to grow the economy during our nation’s most trying crisis. And by doing so, America embarked on period of economic prosperity over the next sixty-five years unrivaled in western civilization.