The Special Session of the 37th U.S. Congress

July 4, 1861 – The 37th Congress of the United States assembled in special session as requested by President Abraham Lincoln’s militia proclamation of April 15.

U.S. Capitol Building under construction, circa 1861 | Image Credit:
U.S. Capitol Building under construction, circa 1861 | Image Credit:

By the time Congress gathered, 11 states had joined the Confederacy, leaving just 24 states with representation. Without the Democrat-dominated southern states, Republicans held strong majorities in the House of Representatives (106-70, or 60 percent) and the Senate (32-16, or 67 percent).

Not only did Democrats hold only about 25 percent of each chamber’s seats, but they were divided over whether to support a Republican-controlled war. They were also demoralized due to the recent death of party leader Stephen A. Douglas. Many congressmen in the slaveholding border states belonged to the Constitutional Union faction, which generally supported the Lincoln administration.

Republicans elected Galusha A. Grow as House speaker. Grow was a Pennsylvania abolitionist who strongly supported the war. Grow rewarded his supporters by appointing Francis P. Blair, Jr. as chairman of the House Military Affairs Committee, which held strong influence over the war effort, and Thaddeus Stevens as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, which controlled all taxing and spending legislation.

16th U.S. President Abraham Lincoln | Image Credit: Bing public domain
16th U.S. President Abraham Lincoln | Image Credit: Bing public domain

The following day, the congressional clerk read President Lincoln’s message, dated July 4. Lincoln revisited the Fort Sumter dispute of April; he explained that the South Carolinians had needlessly attacked a Federal garrison that posed no real threat to them, even though Lincoln had deployed warships and transports to reinforce the fort.

Lincoln stated that the Sumter mission was “intended to be ultimately used, or not, according to circumstances,” and hinted that if he could have reinforced Fort Pickens, he would have aborted the Sumter expedition (reinforcing Pickens “would be a clear indication of policy,” which “would better enable the country to accept the evacuation of Fort Sumter, as a military necessity.”) But none of Lincoln’s other writings or correspondence contained a correlation between Sumter and Pickens.

Placing full blame on southerners, Lincoln stated, “It was with the deepest regret that the Executive found the duty of employing the war-power, in defense of the Government, forced upon him.” He disregarded claims by Confederate officials that they only sought to be left alone, not to assail the Federal government. Lincoln also did not acknowledge attempts by Confederate envoys to negotiate a peace, pay their share of the Federal debt, or compensate for lost Federal property.

Lincoln provided further justification for invading the South by writing that the Confederacy “presents to the whole family of man the question whether a constitutional republic or democracy–a government of the people by the same people–can, or can not, maintain its territorial integrity against its own domestic foes?” However, many countered that maintaining Federal territory was contingent upon consent from the states since they had formed the Federal government.

Despite the fact that secession had been approved by either conventions or popular vote in 11 states, Lincoln intimated that most southerners did not want to secede. Lincoln also refused to acknowledge secession as a constitutional right, instead asserting that the Union was indivisible.

Referring to the Ex Parte Merryman court case in May, Lincoln declared that infringements on civil liberties such as suspending writs of habeas corpus were necessary for the wartime emergency. Denying constitutional freedoms would become a weapon to use against secessionists. He noted, “Are all the laws, but one, to go unexecuted, and the government itself go to pieces, lest that one be violated?”

Lincoln did not explain why he had selected July 4 as the day for Congress to gather. Instead he asked congressmen to retroactively endorse all the actions he had taken since the war began, conceding that strong opposition to his policies remained in Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri. Even so, Lincoln rejected Kentucky’s wish to maintain an armed neutrality, arguing that such a stance would eventually embolden secessionists and further divide the Union: “To prevent the Union forces passing one way, or the disunion the other, over their soil, would be disunion completed… At a stroke it would take all the trouble off the hands of secession, except only what proceeds from the external blockade.”

He also asked the members to “give the legal means for making this contest a short, and a decisive one,” seeking “at least four hundred thousand men, and four hundred millions of dollars… a less sum per head, than was the debt of our revolution.” A “right result, at this time will be worth more to the world, than ten times the men, and ten times the money…” However, Lincoln also admitted that “one of the greatest perplexities of the government, is to avoid receiving troops faster than it can provide for them.”

This message, combined with his April 15 militia proclamation, maintained the legally questionable premise that this war would be waged against the “insurrection” of individual southerners who joined in “combinations too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings.” This clearly demonstrated that administration policy would be to treat this conflict like suppressing an uprising, not invading an independent nation.

Large majorities in both chambers of Congress strongly approved Lincoln’s message, mainly because there was no longer any southern opposition. Congressmen quickly and eagerly began debating measures to finance the war as Lincoln had requested. Ultimately Congress endorsed all of Lincoln’s actions except for his suspension of habeas corpus. 

Salmon P. Chase of Ohio | Image Credit:
Salmon P. Chase of Ohio | Image Credit:

In addition to Lincoln’s message, Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase submitted a financial report that alarmed many congressmen. By this time, the Federal government had an $80 million deficit with only $3 million in reserves. This meant that the government could not meet its regular financial obligations, let alone the many more that would be incurred by war. Chase had agreed to make up the deficit by having Jay Cooke & Company sell government bonds for a commission.

In addition to the $80 million needed for regular expenditures, the Treasury would need $320 million more to meet Lincoln’s request for $400 million by the end of the fiscal year (June 30, 1862). To raise this sum, Chase proposed borrowing $240 million (by selling war bonds and Treasury notes); raising tariffs, selling land, and imposing property taxes for up to $60 million; and obtaining the last $20 million through direct taxation, internal tariffs, or whatever “the superior wisdom of Congress” would approve. This would prove inadequate because the war became larger than anyone had anticipated, and an early lack of public confidence in the Lincoln administration slowed the bond sales.



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