Final Legislation of the 37th U.S. Congress

President Abraham Lincoln reviewed several bills and signed many into law as the lame-duck session of the Thirty-seventh U.S. Congress ended.

A measure was approved authorizing the president to appoint four major-generals and nine brigadiers for the Regular Army, as well as 40 major-generals and 200 brigadiers for the volunteer army. Thirty-three ranking Federal officers were dismissed from the military for various offenses. Other military measures included:

  • Authorizing the Medal of Honor for army soldiers; previously the Medal was only awarded to navy personnel
  • Appointing financier Jay Cooke to lead the effort to sell war bonds

Lincoln vetoed a bill authorizing letters of marque against ships transporting goods to or from the Confederacy. Senator Charles Sumner, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, opposed this measure because allowing Federal privateers (i.e., “rovers of the sea”) to confront neutral ships suspected of working with the Confederacy would “involve us with the great neutral powers of the world.” Sumner also resented that Secretary of State William H. Seward, who supported this bill, bypassed Sumner to push it through Congress. Lincoln sided with Sumner in vetoing the measure.

Lincoln approved the following finance-related measures:

  • Establishing the means to prevent and punish revenue fraud
  • Authorizing the Treasury Department to collect all cotton, tobacco, rice, and sugar captured by Federal forces in Confederate states
  • Loaning the Federal government $300 million this year and $600 million next year
  • Replacing postage stamp currency with $50 million in greenbacks

General legislation approved by Lincoln included:

  • Increasing the number of Supreme Court justices to 10
  • Establishing the Idaho Territory (present-day Idaho and parts of Montana and Wyoming, taken from parts of the Washington and Dakota territories)
  • Establishing the National Academy of Sciences

Under the Habeas Corpus Act, Congress sanctioned Lincoln’s suspension of the writ of habeas corpus in September by proclaiming, “That during the present rebellion, the President of the United States, whenever in his judgment the public safety may require it, is authorized to suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus in any case throughout the United States, or any part thereof.”

This retroactive congressional approval shifted the power over suspending the writ from Congress to the president. It also overrode the ruling by U.S. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney in Ex Parte Merryman (1861), which declared that the Constitution only empowered Congress, not the president, to suspend habeas corpus.

The act also canceled state court rulings by exempting Federal military officers from being sued for violating civil liberties: “It shall then be the duty of the State court to accept the surety (of the Federal court ruling on the matter) and proceed no further in the cause or prosecution, and the bail that shall have been originally taken shall be discharged.” To balance this provision, Federal officers were required to report all arrests made to the Federal judges presiding over the jurisdiction. Nevertheless, this led to a large increase in military arrests in the northern states.

This law drew intense opposition from the minority Democrats. Senator Willard Saulsbury of Delaware delivered a scathing (and possibly drunken) speech on the Senate floor in which he called Lincoln “an imbecile” who was “the weakest man ever placed in a high office.” Vice President Hannibal Hamlin, presiding over the Senate, called upon the sergeant-at-arms to subdue Saulsbury when he refused to yield; Saulsbury threatened the officer to “shoot you dead.”

Most Democrats in Congress, especially the Peace Democrats or “Copperheads,” vigorously opposed all these measures enacted by the Republican majority. War Democrats argued that the war-related measures went beyond merely defeating the Confederacy by violating civil liberties, inflating the size of the Supreme Court (thus assuring a Republican majority on the bench), and nationalizing institutions such as banking.

Some Democrats hid in cloakrooms to prevent a quorum when voting on key measures, others added outrageous amendments to bills, and some senators filibustered as long as they could to prevent voting. However, every Republican-driven piece of legislation ultimately passed by the time Congress adjourned on the 4th.


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  • Faust, Patricia L. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
  • Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005.
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
  • Sylvia, Stephen W. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
  • Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990.

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