1862-1864 - Part 2
Although emancipation is today the most-discussed of Lincoln's policies, several other significant pieces of legislation were passed during his time in office. During a time of war, the executive always plays a stronger role than usual, and Lincoln was no exception to this rule. His uncompromising style as commander- in-chief, coupled with his ambitious domestic program to preserve and further the Union, earned him the nickname of "the tycoon."
Like the Japanese shogun from which the nickname derives, Lincoln the tycoon acted as a military leader exercising absolute rule, with an extremely vise-like grip over his cabinet. Often acting alone in the most crucial decisions, Lincoln vastly expanded and extended the power of the executive. Under his banner the federal government took several giant legislative strides forward, moving well beyond the ever fainter objections of states' rights advocates.
With the nation at war, Lincoln argued that certain portions of the Constitution had to be suspended if Union were to be preserved. Among the most basic rights that Lincoln elected to dispense with were habeas corpus and the freedoms of speech and press. Civilians were tried by military courts on the mere suspicion of treason. Lincoln himself ordered a temporary halt to the publication of several newspapers around the country.
Additionally, the right of private property proved especially vulnerable as the war rolled on. Two major confiscation acts provided the military with permission to seize and retain rebel property, including slaves. In later Union campaigns especially, the usurpation and destruction of civilian lands and stores was common. All of these constitutional violations were justified by Lincoln at various times as necessary to the success of the war effort.
But these were temporary measures. And while Lincoln repeatedly insisted that his war aims directed his wartime measures, many of the legislative measures passed during his tenure as president have had long term ramifications well beyond the living memory of the war. In the early stages of the conflict, many of the most controversial acts revolved around money. Lacking the approval of Congress, Lincoln repeatedly spent quantities of federal funding at his own discretion. To compensate for Lincoln's liberal spending, the first federal income tax was instituted by Congress in 1861 to help fund the war.
True to his Whig roots, Lincoln believed that internal improvements and westward expansion were the keys to the nation's success and survival. As such, Lincoln maintained his dedication to the railroad. With the southern states seceded, the controversy over termination points dissolved, and in July of 1862 the government approved the construction of a transcontinental railroad from Chicago to San Francisco. In the following two years, a series of Pacific Railroad Acts would grant western railroad companies the option to buy wide belts of land on either side of their tracks. By this legislation, 131 million acres of land were granted by Congress to railroads, and 39 million alone to the Northern Pacific railroad.
In terms of deeding territory, Lincoln's administration was the most liberal that the nation has ever known. The most significant measures affecting land use and occupation were passed in 1862, when Union military fortunes were at an ebb. By decree of the Morrill Land Grant Act, large areas were set aside in several states for the establishment of new public colleges and universities. More importantly, the Homestead Act allotted 160 acres to any settler willing to farm western land for a five-year minimum. In the next forty years, homesteaders would claim more than eighty million acres of land in the west under this provision.
Between the Homestead, Land Grant and Pacific Railway Acts, over ten million square miles of territory was awarded for use, an area the size of Massachusetts. Where did all of this land come from? The answer is the usual one. While the Civil War occupied much of the nation's military might, frontier forces continued to move against the natives, seizing several enormous tracts of land without any formal treaty declaration. During Lincoln's presidency, a significant portion of Idaho and the better portion of Nevada, admitted as a state in 1864, were acquired in this fashion.
Today, such action appears so criminal as to preclude rational defense. But at the time there were few detractors from the government's manifest destiny program. Many historians tend to view aggressive presidents like Andrew Jackson and James K. Polk as the ultimate native oppressors. But by signing the Homestead Act into law, Lincoln did as much as any other president to encourage the continuing desecration and virtual destruction of several native tribes and their homelands.
More controversial in its day was the groundbreaking Conscription Act passed in March of 1863. This legislation, which set the precedent for a draft during the Vietnam War, provided for the impressment of all able men between the ages of twenty and forty-five. An exemption was given to those able to hire a substitute or pay a fee of three hundred dollars. Due to its spurious exemption clause, the Conscription Act ended up encouraging all manner of bribery and corruption, and the Union Army developed a distinctly mercenary cast.
Furor over the Conscription Act boiled into revolt mere months later. Uprisings flared in Illinois and Ohio, and in July of 1863 a three-day riot broke out in New York City. A mob of 50,000 strong turned out to protest the injustice of what they termed the "rich man's exemption." Lincoln was left with no choice but to send in Union companies fresh from Gettysburg to control the mayhem. When the troops were provoked into opening fire, one thousand civilians were killed or wounded.
In addition to being unpopular, the Conscription Act was woefully ineffective. Out of the three quarters of a million men drafted, only 45,000 actually served. As a result, Lincoln turned to a bounty system, where soldiers were paid as much as one thousand dollars simply to enlist. This led to the common practice of desertion and re-enlistment under another name. Because of the poor record- keeping practices of the day, single soldiers often collected several bounties without seeing a hint of action.
Money, for myriad reasons, continued to plague Lincoln's war effort throughout. The nation had never fully recovered from the Panic of 1857, and the depression was only to grow more severe after the secession of the southern states. With the economy riven, several debts were simply liquidated, never to be collected by creditors. As wartime expenses swelled, Lincoln chose not to economize but to tax and spend, setting a time-honored precedent for federal economic policy.
Nevertheless, the Union was all but bankrupt by the spring of 1862, and Lincoln turned to other measures beyond the income tax to alleviate the pressure. Goods and manufactures were place under heavy taxes, and tariffs rose steadily. 500 million dollars of war bonds were issued to help boost the economy.
In February of 1863, a National Bank was re-established, and a succeeding act provided for the issue greenbacks, paper money not backed by the gold standard. Called soft or easy money, this first national currency fluctuated wildly, and was thought by many to be as dangerous as it was unconstitutional. Although greenbacks did help finance the Union through the closing months of the war, they later damaged economy severely, having no minor role in the devastating Panic of 1873.
Thanks to the glory of the Civil War, Lincoln's record as a policy-maker is often overlooked. But despite, or perhaps because of, the heroics involved in preserving the Union, Lincoln saddled the country with an assortment of financial and legal problems. By expanding the power of the executive, he set an ominous precedent for the power of the president in a time of war, upsetting the system of checks and balances as laid out in the Constitution. And while he is showered with deserved praise as the liberator of the black slave, he, like other presidents before and after him, was the undisputed oppressor of the native.
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