HIST 119: The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877
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The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877
HIST 119 - Lecture 17 - Homefronts and Battlefronts: "Hard War" and the Social Impact of the Civil War
Chapter 1. Introduction: The Social History Revolution [00:00:00]
Professor David Blight: Today we’re going to take up a question that has been for the past, well, nearly 20 years, probably the most active — to many the most stimulating aspect of Civil War scholarship. How did the Civil War affect civilians? What were the social impacts of such a massive experience? How could you mobilize societies on this scale without profoundly changing people? What did it do to gender relations? What did it do to the meaning of race? We’ve already begun to deal with that question in some depth, how this war would transform the Constitution, transform American political culture, transform the lives of African-Americans — and more on that in time. But, of course, social history won the revolution in American history. Oh, somewhere back in the ’70s and ’80s everybody wanted to be a social historian. When I arrived at Amherst College circa 1989 to teach there was something in the — what was known as — the Pioneer Valley, the Five College Consortium — a Social History Working Group. And I remember asking, can you give a paper if it’s not social history? And the answer was “sure.”
Social history won a sort of methodological struggle over how to do history, what is the meaning of the past? And you all know that by now, whether you think about it that much or not. Social history brought us the history of women. It brought us a revolution and scholarship in the study of African-Americans. It brought us a revolution in the study of class. It taught us how to study social groups in historical time. It’s taught us how to study ordinary people. But — and then I’ll get off this historiographical high horse — it’s remarkable how much Civil War historians, focused as they were so much on an event, focused so much as they were so often for generations, as many put it, on headquarters, the headquarters of generals and of thousands of dispatches they wrote — because those were the sources — or the headquarters of the government, the president, commander of the armies, focused so much on an event from headquarters.
A social historian came along in 1989. He wrote a, well, it was a relatively short little essay in the Journal of American History that became the title essay of a book of essays that came out a year later. It was by Maris Vinovskis, a numbers crunching, hard-boiled social historian who used to argue “if you can’t count it, it ain’t history.” He wrote a little essay, he said, “have social historians lost the Civil War?” His answer, of course, was yes, and he showed, very carefully, by looking at few New England towns, that old tradition of studying in microcosm New England towns — which Colonial American history had been doing for a generation or two — he showed that there are all these towns all over New England, small and relatively large, that had lost half of their men between the age of 18 and 45, in four years of war. He went to some local records and he discovered some of those towns had lost 60% of their male population. He looked a little closer and he saw that the whole idea of occupations in those towns got completely redefined, at least during the war years, because the men were all gone. He started to count widows and count orphans. And, by God, you could count these things. You could measure how many widows were there in Newburyport, Massachusetts, how many widows were there in Bangor, Maine. You could count it. It stimulated a small revolution in scholarship, and it runs unabated as we speak.
And in some ways, the most important kind of history done on it is two kinds. It’s the kind of new Women’s History you’re reading in Drew Faust’s book, Mothers of Invention — a wonderful title. I don’t know if any of you remember the old song by that title but it’s worth thinking about. There’s an irony in there somewhere. At any rate, you get a book like Drew Faust’s, which stands on the shoulders of other books like it, but a book that went and read thousands of Southern women’s letters and diaries to try to understand “how did this war affect Southern white women?” And she has many answers to that, including the somewhat bold argument at the end of that book that it was women, in part — an argument that has been tested by other scholars and even backed off from a bit by Drew herself — but she ends the book at least with a suggestion that the sheer weight of the burden of the war on Southern white women and the thousands upon thousands of letters in which they express that to their mates, their husbands, their brothers, their sons at the front, that it was, in part, Southern white women that made the South give up the war.
And the other part of that Social History revolution has been of course among military historians themselves who discovered ways — the ways had always been there, and there were pioneering works on this as early as the 1950s by a scholar named Bell Wiley who wrote two thick volumes, one in 1954 or ‘55, one entitled Billy Yank and the other entitled Johnny Reb. And lo and behold what that was, was the beginning of a tradition of studying the common soldier, his experiences, his terrors, his horrors, his stomach problems, his dysentery, his disease, his death. And above all, influenced greatly by the field of Psychology and influenced greatly by the rise of gender history, male military historians went to those common soldiers and began to study their values, their ideas, their sense of manhood, their sense of the idea of courage, what that meant in the 1860s in a mid-Victorian society like the United States. And when the set of values by which men, young and old, defined themselves as men collided with modern total war, what did it do to them? And of course ‘they’, being the male military historians of the 1980s and ’90s, were themselves greatly affected by the experience of the Vietnam War.
Chapter 2. Personal Trauma in the Civil War [00:07:39]
Now, with that little bit in mind, let me suggest something that is timeless about this question of the social impact of war, and then I’ll get on to the substance of how the war affected southern society, northern society, and the like. These are excerpts from letters from a soldier in Iraq. His name is Juan Compos. They’re actually emails. Juan was twenty-seven years old. He wrote this to his wife on December 12, 2006. “Hey beautiful, well we were on blackout again. We lost yet some more soldiers. I can’t wait to get out of this place and return to you where I belong. I don’t know how much more of this place I can take. I try to be hard and brave for my guys but I don’t know how long I can keep up. You know? It’s like every time we go out, any time, a bump or sounds freak me out. Maybe I’m just stressing. Oh hopefully it’ll get over. You know, you never think that anything is or can happen to you. At first you feel invincible and then little by little things start to wear on you.” That letter goes on and on, ends of course with tell his eight year old son “hello.” Tuesday, October 3, 2006: “Mood, gloomy. The life of an infantryman is never safe. How do I know? I live it every day. I lost a good friend of mine just two days ago to an enemy sniper. The worst feeling in the world is having lost one of your own and not being able to fight back. The more I go on patrol the more alert I tend to be, but regardless, the situation here in Iraq is that we are never safe. No matter the counter-measures we take to prevent any attacks, they seem to seep through the cracks. Every day a soldier is lost or wounded by enemy attacks. I, for one, would like to make it home to my family one day. Pray for us, keep us in your thoughts, for an infantryman’s life is never safe.” December 15, 2006: “My only goals are to make it out of this place alive, to return to you guys and make you as happy as I can.” Sergeant Compos was killed in the spring of 2007 by an IUD.
This is a letter from the front by Charles Brewster, dated May 15, 1864. There’s a timelessness to what soldiers write from war and there’s a timelessness to its social impact. Brewster, as you may remember me telling you, was that soldier from Massachusetts, lonely and confused, feeling worthless, joined the Union Army, the 10th Massachusetts, in April of 1861 and served out the entire war, and managed to survive, and wrote 260 quite incredible letters. This is the middle of the Spotsylvania campaign, arguably the worst constant daily trench warfare of the Civil War. He’s the adjutant of his regiment and therefore he has to record all of the casualties, just like Sergeant Compos describing, in his war, sort of one a day. But this was war that was killing people by the dozens. He sends his latest report. “Our regiment suffered terribly in the fight the other day losing six officers wounded and eight men killed, plus thirty-four wounded that we know of, besides probably a good many that we do not know of, and from twelve to twenty taken prisoners. This makes a grand total of thirteen officers killed and wounded and twenty-four men killed, 135 wounded and forty-six missing, making 218 officers and men in twelve days. The regiment is reduced to 150 muskets and at this rate there will be none of us left to ever see Richmond.” That regiment would, by the way, within about a week and a half of that, be mustered out because they had insufficient men to serve.
But he ends this letter with what he describes as the most terrible sight he ever saw. “We’re encamped on a splendid plantation and the corn and the wheat is growing finely, or rather it was before we came. But I am afraid the crops will be very small this year down here. We have not seen our wagons since we started and I’m getting sadly dilapidated. My rear is entirely unprotected. I have worn the seat of my pants and drawers entirely off. The most terrible sight I ever saw was the Rebel side of the breastwork we fought over the other day. There was one point on the ridge where the storm of bullets never ceased for twenty-four hours and the dead were piled in heaps upon heaps and the wounded men were intermixed with the dead, held fast by their dead companions who fell upon them, continually adding to the ghastly pile of men. The breastworks were on the edge of a heavy oak woods and large trees, eighteen inches or more in diameter, were worn and cut completely off by the storm of bullets and fell upon the dead and wounded Rebels. Those that lay upon our side in the night when the trees fell said that their howlings were awful when these trees came down upon them. When I looked over in the morning there was one Rebel, sat up, praying at the top of his lungs, and others were gibbering in insanity. Others were groaning and whining at the greatest rate, while during the whole of it I did not hear one of our wounded men make any fuss, other than once in awhile one would sing out ‘oh’ when he was hit. But it is a terrible, terrible, terrible” — three terribles — “business to make the best of this.” Oh, it doesn’t really matter what war you’re talking about. Charlie Brewster’s descriptions could have been along the Somme in World War One, they could’ve been somewhere in the Battle of the Bulge of the Second World War, they could’ve have come from Da Nang, and they could’ve come from the north of Baghdad, as it always says, or near Basra or outside Mosul.
So what is tragedy? What is tragedy in relation to war? How do we understand tragedy through this prism of the social impact of war? I think you only ultimately really do understand it by leaving headquarters, by leaving the generals’ dispatches, by leaving even Abraham Lincoln’s magnificent prose and trying to see it through ordinary eyes, ordinary women, ordinary men. Tragedy is one of those words that we, especially Americans, tend to use haphazardly. It’s a pet peeve of mine, but it’s probably just my problem. Every plane crash is a tragedy, a car accident is a tragedy, we stub our toes and we call it tragic. A tragedy is something we ought to see through the Book of Job, we ought to see it through Shakespeare’s characters. We ought to see it — we ought to go back at least as far as Euripides and the Trojan women. What does Hekuba do in the Trojan women but sit in a ghastly scene of an utterly destroyed city? All of her men are dead and she sits wailing to the sky, on a stone, crying, “How can this be?” That’s tragedy. We should see tragedy through Hekuba, or all those women in Drew Faust’s book. Tragedy can be raw, it can be pointless, it can be utterly unbearable, it can be a dead-end with no exit. Sometimes it is just seemingly faded horror. But sometimes tragedy, throughout its literary history, and then therefore how we tend to use it, tragedy can also be affirmative. It can even be cathartic, and we sometimes can find ways to make it redemptive. It should never be treated with triumphalism. It requires a certain mood.
Rebecca Harding Davis, a wonderful American writer who experienced the war, left us this quite amazing little description of what I would call a simple picture of tragedy. She was in a tiny Pennsylvania town, doesn’t even name it, and it’s 1864, and she describes a scene she witnessed at a train station. I quote her. “Nobody was in sight but a poor, thin country girl in a faded calico gown and sunbonnet. She stood alone on the platform waiting. A child was playing beside her. When we stopped the men took out from a freight car” — Davis was on the train, forgive me — “the men took out from a freight car a rough, unplanned pine box and laid it down, baring their heads for a moment. Then the train steamed away. She sat down on the ground, put her arms around the box, and leaned her head on it. The child went on playing.” We don’t know her name. We don’t even know what town.
Between 1862 and 1863 life insurance policies in America doubled, or the purchase of life insurance policies doubled. Between 1861 and 1865 only two books were published in the United States on anything resembling the idea of the afterlife. During the war, as utterly consumed as Americans became with death, they weren’t writing yet about heaven. But between 1865 and 1876 no less than eighty books were published on the idea of afterlife, of a heaven. Americans, as never before, were trying to invent a heaven. And the best selling book in the United States in 1868 — and it was for a few years after — was a book by Elizabeth Phelps called The Gates Ajar. It’s a bizarre but fascinating book about what heaven actually is and what it looks like and what you do when you get there and the compartments it has and the rooms it has and who you’ll see, especially all those dead soldiers. The Gates Ajar was a massive bestseller, rivaledUncle Tom’s Cabin, at least for the first year. All right, I’m going to leave you there for the moment. And one should never use The New York Times, a first draft of history, as a historical source, but I just did it. So anyway. Gosh.
Chapter 3. Economy and Demography: Changes on the Confederate Home Front [00:21:32]
Now, the Civil War as social history. Well, the people who really, really started this, of course, were Charles and Mary Beard, writing back in the 1920s. It was Charles and Mary Beard in their economic interpretation of — or in their famous book, their big book, The Rise of American Civilization, who said this; and this is the challenge in some ways to all those who would refocus from the event itself onto the social process or onto ordinary people experiencing the event. The Civil War, the Beards wrote, I quote, “was a social war, ending in the unquestioned establishment of a new power in the government, making vast changes in the arrangement of classes, in the accumulation and distribution of wealth, in the course of industrial development. The war was a social cataclysm in which the capitalist laborers and farmers of the North and West drove from power in the national government the planting aristocracy of the South.” Now that’s a fairly clear interpretation, or judgment. The Beards went on then, in the next paragraph, actually, to call it the Second American Revolution; and I quote Beard, “in a strict sense,” he/they said, “the First American Revolution.” The Beard’s revolution in the Civil War was a social economic revolution. And they made an elaborate argument for how this war transformed the economy, transformed the nature of the government and transformed forever the relationship of labor and capital. But was the Civil War ultimately a victory for big business over the agrarian South? It’s been a question we’ve debated over and over and over and over. We stopped debating it for quite awhile, frankly; that debate seemed like an old fossil. When I was in graduate school, nobody wanted to be a Beardian anymore. We were all going to be cultural social historians. But it’s very interesting how the debate has come back. Was the Civil War largely a clash of economic forces, destined to over — was one force, either free labor or slave labor, going to overwhelm the other? The Beards in The Rise of American Civilization, in its 500-odd pages, almost never mention the word slavery. To the Beards, economic forces were these inanimate forces in the world, they kind of operated on their own; there wasn’t that much human agency.
Did the Civil War explode industrial growth or did it actually slow it? You can get arguments on both sides. The best research now shows us that the war itself was not necessarily the single most important engine of America’s great industrial expansion or the birth of the American Industrial Revolution. There’s plenty of scholarship now that shows us that that revolution is much older than the Civil War, that the real launching pad of American industrialization, or the launching period if you want, to find it you got to go back at least to the 1830s and probably the 1820s. You can begin to measure this. GNP in the United States — which I guess we call GDP now, don’t we, is that right? It used to be GN; is it GDP now? Gross domestic product — was about 1.62 billion in 1840, it was about 2.4 billion in 1850, and on the eve of the Civil War in 1860 it was about 4.1 billion. So GDP had more than tripled from 1840 to 1860. That shows us that there’s an industrial revolution already happening. There were 9000 railroad miles in 1850 in the United States. There were 21,000 in 1860. The 1850s is a great launching decade of industrialization. Now I’m going to give you a counter-argument to that in just a minute.
There are two economists named Claudia Golden and Frank Lewis who have estimated, estimated the actual price of the American Civil War; they put a price tag on it. The cost of lives lost, and of wounds, that reduced productivity — these are their variables and their factors — the cost of lives lost and wounds that reduced productivity, as well as property destroyed, and factoring in government expenditures to fight the war, which were humongous — and I’ll state some of them in a moment — Golden and Lewis concluded that the overall cost of war was about six and a half billion dollars to fight it. In today’s dollars that would be about 145 to 150 billion dollars, today, to fight the four years of the Civil War. This amount would’ve allowed the — this is Golden and Lewis’s argument by the way; this is what economists can do with history if they so wish — this amount would’ve allowed the Federal Government — that 145 to 150 billion — it would’ve allowed the Federal Government to purchase and free all four million slaves in 1860 at market prices, give each family 40 acres and a mule, and still they’d have had three and a half billion dollars left over for reparations for former slaves. That’s Golden and Lewis’s argument. I notice it didn’t get much of a rise out of you. But it’s an interesting set of numbers. History, of course, intruded. During the war years, the war retarded economic growth in some sectors but in the long run, especially in northern cities and towns, and especially with the mass mobilization now stimulated by the Federal Government, the war expanded the economy like nothing ever had before, so fast. It just depended on where you lived.
But stop for just a moment now with all these measures or numbers in your head, if you can, and just ask for a moment what can social history measure and what can it not measure? It can measure very important things, and I’m going to give you some more numbers in a minute. Social history can measure demographic change. It can measure death, disease and casualty rates. It can measure industrial production. It can measure loss of civilian pursuits. It can measure the number of women who enter the workforce. It can measure government expenditures. It can measure budgets. It can even measure the basic social impact on a town, a locality, a community. And we now have a number of these wonderful micro histories of southern towns, northern towns, Midwest and so on, during the war. But how do you measure other social factors? And this is one of those questions that makes history endlessly necessary, useful, interesting, and attracts some of us fools to live with it forever. How do you measure despair? How do you measure loneliness? How do you measure the dislocation and fear of widows? How do you measure the suffering of soldiers from wounds and disease? How do you measure the loss of a sense of home, of dislocated worlds? How do you measure nationalism, patriotism? Sometimes we can find some measures of that, in morale studies. How do you measure the psychological damage of combat on the human psyche? How do you measure the fracturing of marriages and relationships by war? How do you measure home front worry? How do you measure the ways war tests and changes values, sentiments and morality itself? How do you measure the social and moral consequences of killing people? How do you measure femininity, manhood, patriarchy? How do you measure what it meant to become free? You don’t, but you do study it.
Now, let me give you one other example, or maybe two. Social impact. Let’s go to one of those Southern women. She gets some mention in Faust’s book because she wrote one of the great diaries and later memoirs that she then revised. This is not Mary Chesnut now, the one so often quoted in the Burns’ film series. This woman’s name was Kate Stone. She wrote a great — well she kept a diary that eventually was published as a book entitled Brokenburn, which was the name of her Louisiana cotton and sugar plantation. It’s an amazing book because you can sort of follow the impact of this war on her psyche by following her through the years and then after the war as well. I’ll pick her up right at the end. The war’s all but over and she records this in April, 1865. She has now moved over to Tyler, Texas. She has refugeed her slaves, as the phrase went. She’s abandoned her plantation because the Union armies took it in the Red River Campaign. She’s lost half of her slaves. She’s lost two brothers in the war and a third one has come home stone silent, he never speaks; battle fatigue, shellshock, post-traumatic stress, who knows? They didn’t have a name for it then. But he never spoke. Her silent brother was around. Two of them are dead. “All are fearfully depressed,” she writes. This is April ‘65. “I cannot bear to hear them talk of defeat. It seems a reproach to our gallant dead.” And then there’s some sort of last gasp bravado, and she hoped that, she said, “the thousands of grass grown mounds heaped on mountainside and in every valley of our country would still rally the South to be free or die.” What bravado in a diary.
And then a month later, mid-May 1865, she opened a journal entry with a definition, and it doesn’t get any better than this, of the South’s immediate fate, and especially the fate of women, living in this kind of now physical hardship and personal isolation. She opened the entry with three underlined words. “Conquered, submission, subjugation are the words that burn into my heart, and yet I feel that we are doomed to know them in all their bitterness.” She looked ahead, she began to reflect about her class and her race, and then she said they, the white plantar class of the South, would now become what she called slaves. Quote, “Yes, slaves of the Yankee government.” She feared the quite specific what she called unendurable fate of blacks ruling over her. “Submission to the Union,” she went on, “how we hate that word. Confiscation, Negro equality, or a bloody unequal struggle, lest we know not how long.” And then in July of ‘65, rocking a baby in a chair in her arms, and singing all the songs she could remember, she found she said, quote, “The war songs sicken me. The sound is like touching a new wound. I cannot bear to think of it all. I forget whenever I can.” Well it’s fascinating to follow Kate Stone through time, though. She did all right. There weren’t many men around but she finally met one. There’s an incredible entry where she says she started going to social events and at one of them people were dancing and she couldn’t bear to dance, it just didn’t seem right. But she finally did. She met a surviving Confederate officer, married him in 1869, lived out a life, had four kids, and became the local head of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in her town in Texas, and lived until 1907. Kate Stone did better than most.
But Southern society went to war and paid an enormous price, of course. Civilians. Civilians were ultimately, in some ways, the strength behind the armies. This war was, to some extent, lost on the home front, for the South in particular. Having said that, you can say on the other side in some ways it was won on the home front in the North, because of industrial production, because of sheer numbers and resources. But it’s worth remembering here that the Civil War happened to Southerners more than it happened to Northerners. Only a small portion of this war was actually fought on northern soil. The Confederacy failed ultimately to solve the problems of the home front. Just think of a list. And this is not to condemn them, this was their challenge, this is the risk they took, this is what they risked was secession in 1861. The problems of the home front they could not ultimately solve in the midst of this massive, enveloping thousand mile front war, surrounded by a naval blockade: money supply; transportation; agriculture, agricultural production; developing small industry; creating a national bureaucracy that could be efficient; maddening shortages of foodstuffs, clothing and about everything else it takes to keep armies in the field; class frictions; social disintegration; and last but not least slavery, what to do about slavery, particularly once it comes under pressure in 1862 and then after the Emancipation Proclamation which announces the purpose of the war now is to destroy slavery. What does the Confederacy do? We will come back to that, directly, in terms of the Confederate Government’s policy on a kind of emancipation late in the war, in ‘64 and ‘65.
The South did undergo some rapid economic expansion, remarkable economic expansion. In fact, if you read the sections on this in Jim McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom as background, he has some glowing things to say about just how effective the South was in producing cannon, for example, at the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond. They had 3000 slaves working in the largest industrial plant anywhere in the southern states by 1863, producing, by and large, their own weapons. The naval blockade of the Union Navy was not very effective at first, but it was ultimately crippling, by the latter part of the war. The estimate is that about five out of six blockade runners, these ships running the blockade, got through between 1861 and ‘62, but by 1864 and ‘65 only about one of every two attempted blockade runners ever got through. There was widespread devastation of staple crop agriculture in those parts of the South where the Union armies moved in. Charlie Brewster just described those cornfields of Central Virginia. A Union Army near Southern crops meant the crops were gone in twenty-four hours. In one of the world’s greatest agricultural economies, people began to go hungry by late ‘63 and into ‘64, bringing about major bread riots in cities like Richmond, Charleston, South Carolina, and other places. With more than a half a million white men leaving agriculture across the South, it seriously reduced productivity, and then as slavery began to dissolve, slowly but surely, this of course disrupted production, at least in about a third of the South’s agricultural land.
The occupation of Louisiana, for example, early in the war, as early as ‘62, brought the sugar industry to the edge of extinction, and by the war’s end only about fifteen percent of Louisiana’s 1,300 sugar estates were operating at all. The great sugar plantations of Louisiana were in almost utter ruin by the end of the war, especially after the Red River Campaign of 1864. Tobacco was in shambles as the Union armies moved through Kentucky and Tennessee, quite early in the war, and rice along the coast of South Carolina was devastated by Union occupation as early as ‘62 and ‘63. And then there was the South’s decision, Jefferson Davis’s decision, to engage in a cotton embargo; that is, they took cotton off the world market — and we’ll say more about this when we deal with questions of Confederate defeat in terms of their foreign policy. But the policy by 1863 of the Confederate Government was to take cotton off the world market — trying to pull an OPEC, trying to do with cotton what the OPEC countries in our lifetime have tried to do with oil — pull it back, make the world demand it, and maybe make the Brits come in on your side. It totally backfired and it was a total economic disaster for the South. The production of cotton in the Confederate states went from about five million bales in 1860 to about one-quarter million in 1865.
Now, Confederate fiscal policy was also a disaster. Not until 1863 did the Richmond government enact any kind of comprehensive tax law. Taxing was not very consistent, from the federal level, with the way the Confederacy was itself born. Even then when they tried to pass a comprehensive tax law, the Confederacy derived in the end only about seven percent of its revenues from actual taxation. The rest came from borrowing money from abroad, sale of bonds, which was about twenty-five percent of their budget, impressment of provisions from Southerners themselves, about seventeen percent, and in the end about fifty percent of all money in the Confederacy and its foyers of existence was printed paper money which became inflated at ridiculous rates, rapidly. Now —
Chapter 4. Growing Republican Influences on Industry and Commerce in the North [00:43:14]
So much more could be said here, especially about this dissolving institution of slavery and how it affected the South. But let me spend the last five minutes on the North, which is a very different story. It’s a more successful story, it’s a more progressive story in the literal sense, and it is rooted in a particular kind of political vision that that Republican Party brought to the Federal Government. Before the Civil War, the Federal Government did little more than deliver the mail, by and large — that’s about all it did. It collected modest tariffs and it conducted foreign policy; but by the surrender at Appomattox, a great deal had changed in four years. Thousands were poised to spread across the continent with the Transcontinental Railroad. Businesses had begun to operate on a national scale with massive new marketing plans and full-time marketing people. Higher tariffs would bolster domestic manufacturing. Individuals experienced the nation state and gave it their allegiance as never before. An array of new national taxes were passed. The currency was nationalized. The Federal Government distributed public lands, chartered corporations, and would enforce black freedom with state or national authority; and States’ Rights, at least for the time being, was dealt nearly a death blow, temporarily.
War enabled the Republicans to pass sweeping visionary legislation borne of a certain worldview, and that worldview basically is captured in what the economists of the time, political economists of the time, like Matthew Carey and others, called “harmony of interest.” This is the idea that in a capitalist economy you could bring labor and capital into harmony if you kept labor free and the economy free all at the same time. It was the belief that labor and capital could be friends. It also depended on an activist interventionist federal government, and that is exactly what the Republicans created, in part out of necessity of the war and in part out of the fact that they actually believed in it. And it’s going to bring about a great deal of constitutional innovation and economic experimentation. Here’s what they did. In finance, in agriculture, in taxes, in building railroads, and in emancipation — at least those five major categories — the Republican Party transformed the United States Federal Government.
They began by first selling war bonds. The Treasury needed money to fight the war. The cost of the American Civil War to fight it, just for the Union Government, by 1863 was approximately two-and-a-half million dollars per day. That’s more than the Federal Government had spent in some decades before the Civil War. Now that’s a financial revolution. How are you going to do it? How are you going to produce all this money? They began selling bonds to banks and financiers. In 1862, about 500 million dollars in bonds were sold at six percent, payable in five years. Buy a bond, support the war. The government then chose, hired, invited, from the private sector, the Philadelphia banker Jay Cooke, enlisted him to lead this federal bonds financing program, and he did lead it, aggressively. The whole idea here was economic nationalism, to invest the citizen in the fate of the Union by making them pay for it. And it was in 1862 that the Federal Government for the first time created the Greenback Dollar, the paper dollar, which actually revolutionalized American currency. Financial markets went up and down during the war, depending on battlefield success or failure. But by 1863, they were financing a war, companies were making profits and the Federal Government could pay its bills. It worked. The total national debt of an annual two-and-a-half billion was absorbed by the general population, and it was celebrated as what the Republican Party called a people’s triumph.
Chapter 5. Conclusion [00:48:36]
Now, I’m running into that wall of time, God help me. Let me leave you here, with this. Now, the North has enormous advantages, of course, in resources and population and industry and transportation, and on and on and on. And it had those New York bankers, once they could convince them to stop being anti-union and [become] pro-union. But what came out of this was a revolutionary set of legislation that only wartime could probably have produced; the Homestead Act in the West, the Transcontinental Railroad, the Morrill Act of 1862, which was the Land Grant College Act, which created agricultural colleges across the country, by federal money. In fact last week I gave a lecture at my alma mater — at Michigan State — and just outside the lecture hall where I lectured was a copy of the original handwritten Morrill Act. I know you don’t care but I did [laughter] because Michigan Agricultural College was the first land grant college, and they always reminded us of that every time — every year at Freshman orientation. And really, frankly to understand — and I’ll leave you here — to understand how Northerners, the Republican Party, Lincoln himself and at least the majority of those Union troops came to support emancipation, the freeing of black people, by federal authority, you need to see it in the context of all else that this Republican Party was doing through the Federal Government. They were using government now as the engine of great social experimentation and change; granted, so much of it out of necessity, some of it out of will. I’m going to return to this story a little bit on Thursday as we move toward the question of why the North wins this war.
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