Friday, April 11, 2014

Getting something done in the U.S. Congress

Last week Jim DeMint, a former Republican South Carolina Senator and current head of the rightwing think tank Heritage Foundation, astonished (historically literate) listeners by announcing that it wasn't "big government" that freed the slaves. I guess that Sherman's Union army that marched through his state to hook up with General U.S. Grant in Virginia didn't have a big government behind it. Mr. DeMint may not like remembering that some 18,000 white men from his state were willing to die to keep African-Americans in bondage. (I don't think that figure includes South Carolina slaves who joined the Union Army after the Emancipation proclamation.)

Historian Erik Loomis at Lawyers, Guns and Money mocks DeMint's crackpot tale:

This is funny on so many levels but my favorite part of this “interpretation” that the federal government didn’t free the slaves is that in fact not only is this wrong, but doing so led to the largest expansion of the federal government in the nation’s history to that time.

What Loomis points out here is one of my main takeaways from James M. McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. The short period (1860-65) when the U.S. government perforce operated without a bunch of conservative southern states obstructing progress was one of tremendous change and accomplishment well beyond the successful war to save the democratic republic.

In the absence of the conservative drag on government (in those days the naysayers were southern Democrats while the innovators were radical Republicans), Congress was able to advance ideas for national growth that had been stymied for a decade or more.
  • A Homestead Act enabled settlers moving west to stake claims to more than 3 million acres.
  • The Morrill (Land-Grant) Act provided public land to states to found colleges and universities.
  • The Paciic Railroad Act and other legislation gave railroads right of ways for their tracks and much additional land, thereby opening the west to modern commerce.
Perhaps most importantly to the growth of big government that causes DeMint such distress, Congress created a modern tax and financial system. While the Confederacy went gradually broke, its unsecured paper money becoming worthless, the modern U.S. dollar, the "greenbacks," paid for the war.

Congressman Elbridge G. Spaulding of New York, chairman of the House subcommittee charged with responsibility for framing emergency legislation, ... introduced a bill to authorize the issuance of $150 million in Treasury notes -- i.e., fiat money. This bill seemed to imitate the dubious Confederate example -- but with a crucial difference. The U. S. notes were to be legal tender receivable for all debts public or private except interest on government bonds and customs duties. ...

Opponents maintained that the legal tender bill was unconstitutional because when the framers empowered Congress "to coin money," they meant coin. Moreover, to require acceptance of paper money for debts previously contracted was a breach of contract. But the attorney general and most Republican congressmen favored a broad construction of the coinage and the "necessary and proper" clauses of the Constitution. "The bill before us is a war measure," Spaulding told the House, "a necessary means of carrying into execution the power granted in the Constitution 'to raise and support armies.' . . . These are extraordinary times, and extraordinary measures must be resorted to in order to save our Government and preserve our nationality." Opponents also questioned the expediency, morality, even the theology of the legal tender bill. ...

But the bill passed and the financing system proved stable thanks to the strength of the northern economy and Union victories -- and thanks to that other innovation of this Congress: an Internal Revenue Act which created a personal income tax as well as a Bureau of Internal Revenue. The former was a war measure; the later never afterwards withered away.

The relationship of the American taxpayer to the government was never again the same.

The new tax was relatively progressive; it exempted the food of the poor and the wages of manual laborers, hitting only persons of some property or other wealth.

Maybe that example is what DeMint truly resents -- along of course with freeing all those uppity black people.

McPherson summarizes the accomplishments of the Civil War Congress:

By its legislation to finance the war, emancipate the slaves, and invest public land in future growth, the 37th Congress did more than any other in history to change the course of national life. As one scholar has aptly written, this Congress drafted "the blueprint for modern America."

Much as I celebrate the accomplishments of my ancestors in preserving a republic that could gradually expand the freedom of all its people, I probably should feel a little cautious knowing that the progressive surge was made possible by war. The current, spurious post-9/11 wars have enabled far less desirable measures.

E.G. Spaulding, pictured here, was a western New York banker, a state assemblyman, mayor of Buffalo, a Congressman, "father of the greenback bill," and my great-great-great grandfather. Until reading "Battle Cry," I never had much sense of what he accomplished besides temporarily enriching himself.

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