Proceedings of the Thirty-seventh U.S. Congress

In his message to Congress, President Abraham Lincoln had requested financial measures to pay for the war. Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase submitted a report offering recommendations on how the money could be raised, which alarmed many members of Congress. By this time, the Federal government had an $80 million deficit with only $3 million in reserves. This meant that it 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.

Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase | Image Credit:

In addition to the $80 million needed for regular expenditures, Chase estimated the Treasury would need $320 million for the war by the end of the fiscal year (June 30, 1862). To raise this sum, Chase proposed the following:

  • $240 million would be borrowed by selling war bonds and Treasury notes;
  • $60 million would be collected by raising tariffs, selling land, and imposing property and excise taxes;
  • $20 million would be obtained through direct taxation, internal tariffs, or whatever “the superior wisdom of Congress” might approve.

Chase even proposed the idea of seizing and selling “the property of those engaged in insurrection.”

These proposals would prove insufficient because the war became much larger than anyone had anticipated, and a lack of initial public confidence in the war effort slowed the bond sales. Nevertheless, the Radical Republicans in Congress (i.e., those who wanted to free slaves as a means to win the war) touched upon Chase’s suggestion of seizing Confederates’ property, including their slaves.

During the War of 1812, the Federal government had tried to seize the property of British subjects living in the U.S., but the Supreme Court ruled that to do this, it would need “some legislative act expressly authorizing its confiscation.” The property confiscation idea was then referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Radical Lyman Trumbull of Illinois, to look into drafting such an authorizing act.

In mid-July, Trumbull’s committee introduced a draft version of a bill in which the property of those “aiding, abetting, or promoting insurrection” would be subject to “prize and capture,” just as property on the high seas was subject to confiscation according to maritime law. Since the Constitution authorized Federal courts to decide “all cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction,” those same courts would decide confiscation cases, with or without the presence of the property owners.

The bill was amended later that month to specify that slaves would be subject to “prize and capture” if their masters “employ such person in aiding or promoting any insurrection.” If slaves were to be considered property, and property was subject to confiscation like prizes on the high seas, then slaves would be as well. Trumbull wanted to apply international law to confiscation because in times of war between nations, it was legal to confiscate the property of enemies. But the Republicans had insisted that this was not a war between nations, it was merely an insurrection, and thus international law would not apply. Moreover, congressmen in the border states saw this for what it truly was: the first step toward slave emancipation. Debate on this bill would continue into August.

In the meantime, the House approved a resolution waiving any requirements for the army to return fugitive slaves to their owners. This measure passed despite recommendations from several Federal officers to adopt a policy to return fugitives because they had no way to care for them. This policy had been generally adopted in the Western Theater. In the Senate, a motion by Lazarus Powell of Kentucky stating that troops should not be used to interfere with slavery in any way was soundly defeated.

Congress quickly acted upon many of Chase’s recommendations. President Lincoln signed into law “An act to provide for the collection of duties on imports, and for other purposes.” This authorized the president to regulate trade with the Confederacy. Section 5 empowered Lincoln to allow trade with parts of Confederate states under Federal military occupation. This sanctioned the seizure of southern cotton for cotton-starved northern businesses. Section 9 authorized Federal courts to review claims on confiscated Confederate property.

Had the Lincoln administration considered the Confederacy to be a foreign nation, this bill could have been legally enforced under international law. But opponents argued that since the administration insisted that the Confederacy was merely a rebellious section of the U.S., this measure unconstitutionally regulated commerce within a state.

Lincoln also signed a bill into law authorizing a $250 million loan in bonds and Treasury notes to the Federal government. Chase had asserted that this was needed to meet war expenditures, but it was not enough. The rest of the money needed to come from direct taxation.

Democrats and border state Unionists would make their voice heard as best they could. They were strongest in the Midwest, where farmers and merchants using the Mississippi and Ohio rivers to do business with the South were hit hard when the Confederacy prohibited trade with the North. Not only were these Midwesterners crippled economically, but they greatly feared the idea of emancipated slaves moving north to compete for their jobs. Democrats were quick to play on these fears, as an Indiana congressman declared, “We intend to have in our State, as far as possible, a white population, and we do not intend to have our jails and penitentiaries filled with the free blacks.”

The small minority of anti-war Democrats in Congress strongly opposed many of the Republican initiatives. This faction was led by Congressman Clement L. Vallandigham of Ohio. Such a sentiment was extremely unpopular in most of the North. The pro-war New York Tribune began referring to northern politicians like Vallandigham as “Copperheads,” likening them to poisonous snakes. Vallandigham even faced strong opposition in his home state. When he visited Cleveland soldiers at Camp Upton in Alexandria, Virginia, the troops jeered, threw stones at him, and threatened to ride him out of camp on a rail. This sparked a near riot that had to be broken up by officers.

U.S. Congressman Clement L. Vallandigham | Image Credit:

Vallandigham then visited a regiment from his hometown, where he received a much friendlier reception. Most Republican newspapers failed to report on the friendly camp, instead highlighting his bad reception at Camp Upton. The New York Tribune stated that Vallandigham had panicked upon seeing an effigy of himself being pelted with stones and fled the scene. Several editorials lambasted Vallandigham’s anti-war views and lectured to soldiers not to support him.

Vallandigham and fellow Ohio Congressman William Allen pushed for a resolution declaring that the war had been caused by “the violent and long-continued denunciation of slavery and slaveholders.” Allen argued “that it is no part of the object of the present war against the rebellious States to interfere with the institution of slavery therein.” Vallandigham offered another resolution stating that–

“–before the President shall have the right to call out any more volunteers than are already in the service, he shall appoint seven commissioners, whose mission it shall be to accompany the Army on its march, to receive and consider such propositions, if any, as may at any time be submitted from the executive of the so-called Confederate States, or of any one of them, looking to a suspension of hostilities, and the return of said States, or any one of them, to the Union and to obedience to the Federal Constitution and authority.”

Vallandigham also introduced a motion censuring President Lincoln for invoking unconstitutional executive orders to wage war before Congress had convened. All these resolutions and motions were easily defeated by the Republican majority, but they did have support among the small anti-war Democratic contingent.


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