Lincoln also illegally ordered a naval blockade of the South (which only Congress could do), illegally increased the size of the army (again, a power reserved only for Congress), and authorized illegal voting methods in the border states. Congress generally supported all of these decisions. Lincoln justified them by claiming that desperate times called for desperate measures and promised to obey the Constitution once the war was over.

The Morrill Tariff

The 1862 Congress, for its part, passed a flurry of progressive new laws as soon as the South had seceded from the Union. First, Northern congressmen passed the protective Morrill Tariff , which essentially doubled the prewar tariff. They passed the tariff not only to win more support from manufacturers but also because they realized how important the economy would be during the war.

The Legal Tender Act and National Bank Act

Next, Congress passed the 1862Legal Tender Act, which authorized the printing of a national currency of paper money that was not redeemable for gold or silver. The next year, the National Bank Act provided for the federal charter of banks and supervision of a system of national banks, all of which were required to comply with the Legal Tender Act.

The Homestead Act

Congress also passed the Homestead Act, which gave individual settlers 160 acres of western land if they promised to live on the land and improve it by farming and building a house. In addition, Congress passed the Morrill Land Grant Act, which provided federal lands to state governments to build new agricultural colleges.

Congress Without Southerners

As one historian put it, Congress was so productive in 1861, 1862, and 1863 precisely because there were no conservative Southerners to oppose new legislation. Without any states’ righters, Northern Republicans could pass higher tariffs, write a wide variety of badly needed reform bills, strengthen the national economy, and bolster the federal government.

The new laws eliminated countless different currencies in circulation that had been issued by individual states or banks and replaced them with a single dollar backed by gold in the U.S. Treasury. The new greenback dollar (named for its color) gave the North great economic stability, which eventually helped it beat the South. Together, the acts gave the federal government unprecedented power over the economy. The Morrill Land Grant Act and the Homestead Act, meanwhile boosted settlement and the agricultural development of the West during the war and for several decades afterward.

Popular pages: The Civil War 1850–1865