July 16, 1862 – The lack of southern opposition made the Thirty-seventh U.S. Congress one of the most productive in history, as the Republican majority worked to enact nearly every plank of their party platform.
U.S. Capitol Building under construction | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org
Regarding the war effort, Congress approved a measure authorizing the distribution of the Medal of Honor to Federal army personnel. The Medal had been established last year only for officers and men of the Federal Navy or Marine Corps. This later became known as the Congressional Medal of Honor, the only individual decoration for valor during the war besides a congressional vote of thanks.
The Federal Navy
President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill into law establishing that “… every officer, seaman, or marine, disabled in the line of duty, shall be entitled to receive for life, or during his disability, a pension from the United States, according to the nature and degree of his disability, not exceeding in any case his monthly pay.” This was intended to help wounded naval personnel, as well the widows and children of those killed in service. Another law appropriated money for the families of Federal sailors killed in action against the Confederate ironclad C.S.S. Virginia at Hampton Roads, Virginia, in March.
Congress approved a measure stating that “… the spirit ration in the Navy of the United States shall forever cease, and… no distilled spirituous liquors shall be admitted on board vessels of war, except as medical stores… there shall be allowed and paid to each person in the Navy now entitled to the ration, five cents per day in commutation and lieu thereof, which shall be in addition to their present pay.” This law was sponsored by Republican Senator James Grimes of Iowa, at the request of Assistant Navy Secretary Gustavus V. Fox.
The Militia Act of 1862
Lincoln approved a bill that defined militias as consisting of all able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 45, eligible to be called into Federal service for up to nine months. The president was to “make all necessary rules and regulations… to provide for enrolling the militia and otherwise putting this act into execution.”
This allowed for unprecedented Federal power over state militias, and it was the first step toward a military draft. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton authorized Federal officials to suppress any criticism of the Federal militia policy, including imprisoning anti-war protestors.
The law also authorized the president “to employ as many persons of African descent as he may deem necessary and proper for the suppression of this rebellion, and for this purpose he may organize and use them in such manner as he may judge best for the public welfare.” This included “any military or naval service for which they may be found competent.”
This was the first time in American legislative history that blacks were allowed (albeit implicitly) to serve as military combatants. Blacks would receive less pay than whites, and they would initially be used only for manual labor, but abolitionists saw this as a good first step toward racial equality. A moderate Republican senator acknowledged that “the time has arrived when… military authorities should be compelled to use all the physical force of this country to put down the rebellion.”
These wartime measures marked a turning point in the Federal war policy. The war would take a much harsher turn in future months, as the Federals sought to fight on “different principles” and toss aside the “white kid-glove warfare” that had produced stalemate.
The Ironclad Oath
Lincoln approved a measure requiring all Federal officials or employees, elected or appointed, to take an “ironclad oath” declaring that they had never done anything to aid the Confederacy. Those who could not take this oath or refused to take it would lose their jobs.
This had generated intense debate in Congress, but Lincoln’s moderate approach to readmitting Confederate states to the Union meant that this was rarely enforced at first. However, the oath requirement was later extended to cover Federal contractors, attorneys, and jurors, along with residents of Confederate states under Federal military occupation.
Republicans approved more measures raising the already high protective tariffs on sugar, tobacco, and liquor. This made up for land sale revenue lost by the Homestead Act and helped garner party support from bankers and industrialists who lobbied for the high rates.
Congress approved the Second Legal Tender Act, which authorized printing another $150 million in paper currency, or greenbacks. Greenbacks were worth only 91 cents in gold by the end of July, but many people supported them, especially westerners who had limited access to specie. Confederates under Federal military occupation also used greenbacks because they were still worth more than the nearly worthless Confederate currency.
There were now $300 million in greenbacks in circulation, which inflated the cost of living in the northern states. However, this was somewhat offset by the new Federal income tax enacted this month, as well as the strengthening northern industry to bolster the economy.
Another bill addressed the problem of dwindling amounts of metal currency by authorizing the use of postage stamps as money.
Lincoln signed a bill into law approving a treaty to work with Great Britain in suppressing the illicit African slave trade. The U.S. Senate approved a measure endorsing the secession of western Virginia from the rest of the state and admitting “West Virginia” into the Union as a new state. West Virginia had been created by a legally questionable legislature on May 23 on the condition that blacks would not be permitted there, slave or free.
Lincoln also signed the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act into law, which banned polygamy in U.S. territories. This was part of the Republican Party’s campaign pledge of 1860 to end polygamy within the Mormon Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in the Utah Territory. Mormons argued that such a law violated their First Amendment right to freely practice their religion.
Members of this 37th U.S. Congress overhauled the nation’s financial system, distributed land to states and homesteaders, laid the groundwork for a transcontinental railroad, and took steps to abolish slavery. All these measures permanently changed the direction of America’s social and economic development. They also gave the Federal government unprecedented control over the states and the people, which was exactly what southerners had argued against (and were now fighting against) since the nation’s founding.
Before Congress adjourned, one last controversial measure would be enacted.
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