Antique photograph of people from the World: Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincold Credit: iStock

The American Civil War lives in our national memory as a great inflection point that reshaped the country. Indeed, the sense that the Civil War created “another world” has dominated much of the writing on its history ever since William Dean Howell published The Rise of Silas Lapham in 1884.

Congress at War
Congress at War:
How Republican Reformers Fought the Civil War, Defied Lincoln, Ended Slavery, and Remade America
by Fergus M. Bordewich
Penguin Random House, 480 pp.

At the turn of the century, progressive historians like Charles and Mary Beard described the Civil War as a “second American Revolution.” More recent progressives, like Eric Foner and David Blight, have emphasized a new legal world—a “second founding,” as they say—in which the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments transformed the old Constitution’s passive restraints on the federal government into activist powers that could advance the cause of equality.

Fergus Bordewich’s newly released book, Congress at War: How Republican Reformers Fought the Civil War, Defied Lincoln, Ended Slavery, and Remade America, joins this chorus of assent. It argues that the Civil War “laid the foundation for the strong activist central government that came fully into being in the twentieth century, permanently altered the relationship between the states and the federal government, and enshrined protection of civil rights as the responsibility of the federal government.”

That’s not necessarily a novel observation, but Bordewich differs from previous historians through his depiction of Congress’s role in that transformation. Past accounts have relegated the 37th and 38th Congresses in creating an “activist central government” to little more than the role of a bystander. America’s 16th president, in their view, is essentially the lone hero. But it was the Republican-dominated Congresses that made the “steady march toward more effective and centralized government,” while the Great Emancipator struggled to play catch-up, Bordewich insists.

Even Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation is really “a result of the many months of debate in the House and Senate, and the ceaseless personal prodding of the Radicals in Congress.” The Great Emancipator thus becomes almost the Great Fifth Wheel.

Bordewich certainly has no trouble establishing the unprecedented volume and scope of legislation passed by the Civil War Congresses. The secession of the Southern states—and the withdrawal of their Southern Democratic representatives from the 37th Congress—left Lincoln’s Republicans with unchallengeable majorities in both houses. They lost no time in using them. Over the next four years, national finance was completely re-structured through the National Banking Act, and the wartime economy was jump-started by the Legal Tender Act, the issuance of paper “greenback” currency, and the first direct taxes on personal incomes through the Internal Revenue Act. The vast public lands in the western territories, meanwhile, were thrown open to settlement by the Homestead Act, and their productivity supported through the Land-Grant College Act. A long-desired transcontinental railroad emerged from the Pacific Railway Act, and the first government bureau designed “to oversee the affairs of individual men and women”—the Freedmens Bureau—was created in 1865. In short, Congress in those days got things done.

All of these developments are couched in a rapid-fire narrative that never misses a moment of personality and drama. There are scenes that could belong in a John Ford western. At one point, radical Republican Zachariah Chandler was confronted in the dining room of the National Hotel by Democratic Congressman Daniel Voorhees, who walked over to Chandler’s table and slapped him in the face. A fist-fight ensued, and ended with one of Voorhees’ friends smashing a milk pitcher over Chandler’s head and knocking him cold. In a separate incident, Pennsylvania Congressman William “Pig-Iron” Kelley was accosted at Willard’s Hotel and stabbed by an enraged opponent, although only in the hand, because his assailant was too drunk to aim at anything more vital.

And then there was conspiracy. When the 38th Congress assembled for its first session in December 1863, the House of Representatives clerk, embittered Democrat Emerson Etheridge, hatched a scheme, in cahoots with the House minority leader Samuel S. “Sunset” Cox, to use the House rules to disallow the credentials of newly-arriving Republican members and overturn the GOP majority. But after a shrewd parliamentary procedure, Massachusetts Republican Henry Dawes was able to stave off the bid. It was as close to a coup d’etatas Washington has ever seen, and Bordewich choreographs this and many other such episodes with faultless pacing. Congress has not seemed so exciting a place since, well, the Civil War.

Yet rumbling underneath Bordewich’s rollicking story-telling, there are two major problems with his account. For most of Abraham Lincoln’s political career, he had been a spear-carrier for the Whig Party, which believed adamantly that the president could only use “certain indirect influences to affect the action of congress.” That did not mean that “indirect influences” had no weight. Even the most radical of the Republicans were wary of how Lincoln’s “executive magnet had reached some members.” Lincoln kept up a constant stream of Congressional visitors to the White House, and they, in turn, carried Lincoln’s wishes to the floor. There were safeguards in place in case they didn’t. In fact, a carriage was always kept available to convey Lincoln’s staff down Pennsylvania Avenue to make his intentions known. Ohio’s radical Senator Ben Wade resented Lincoln’s “back-kitchen way of doing this business,” but recognized its efficacy.

There was one occasion when the Senate tried to interfere directly in Lincoln’s executive prerogatives. In December 1862, the Senate radicals attempted to force the dismissal of Secretary of State William Seward. Lincoln adroitly wrong-footed them, and there were no similar challenges thereafter. By 1863, Lincoln’s then private secretary, John Hay, could marvel at how Lincoln “sits here and wields like a backwoods Jupiter the bolts of war and the machinery of government with a hand equally steady and equally firm.” According to Hay, Lincoln was “managing this war, the draft, foreign relations, and planning a reconstruction of the Union, all at once.” What’s more, “the most important things he decides & there is no cavil.”

Even more disconcerting, the “second founding” argument fails to explain how “centralization” was the result of the Republicans’ legislation. In fact, a look at their record says the opposite. The Homestead Act was the largest stroke of privatization of government property in American history; the Freedmen’s Bureau endured in gradually diminishing size only until 1871; the Pacific Railway Act was the most stupendous gift to private corporations before the auto industry bailout in 2008-09. And as John Fabian Witt has recently argued, the Reconstruction amendments did more to limit the federal government’s enforcement of equality than promote it. If anything, the Civil War brought the nation back to the “first founding” by rejecting the lethal notions of state sovereignty peddled by the pro-slavery South. For forty years after the war, virtually every significant reform in politics and the economy–from municipal government and urban infrastructure (and especially municipal sewage, the source of most infectious disease epidemics), to public education and voting rights for women—occurred at the state level, not the federal.

That does not mean that the Civil War Congresses were ciphers. Lincoln regarded the radical caucus of his party as “utterly lawless—the unhandiest devils in the world to deal with.” Yet Lincoln understood that “after all their faces are set Zionwards” and frankly admitted that “Wade and Chandler are right … We can’t get through this terrible war with slavery existing.”

Congress at War is an important step forward in exploring the history of the Civil War Congresses. Bordewich’s use of archival materials certainly advances our understanding of the era. But the full history of the 37th and 38th Congresses still hasn’t been written. Until it is, we can’t fully understand the dimensions of a conflict that nearly destroyed the nation.

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Allen C. Guelzo, a senior research scholar at Princeton University, is a Civil War historian and three-time winner of the Lincoln Prize.