“It was the members of this Congress — sometimes by accident and sometimes by design — who drew the blueprint for a new America,” historian Leonard P. Curry wrote of the 37th.
Why did it happen? How did it happen?
The simple answer: secession.
By the summer of 1861, nearly a third of the desks in both houses of Congress sat empty, vacated by members who had departed Washington for the Confederacy, leaving a splintered Democratic Party and a huge Republican majority with a Republican president willing to sign sweeping legislation. Ideas that had been mired for years or even decades in partisan gridlock finally could become reality.
“The people left behind said, ‘This is our golden opportunity,’ ” said U.S. Senate historian Donald Ritchie. “It opened the floodgates.”
What came through those floodgates were measures of such breadth and significance that they continue to shape American life.
One of the early landmark bills was the Revenue Act of 1861. Designed to help fund the Union war effort, it instituted the first federal income tax. That measure, along with the National Banking Act passed later in the session to create a national currency, laid some of the country’s key economic foundations.
By April 1862, lawmakers saw fit to use their authority to end slavery in the District of Columbia, a move that paved the way for President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation the following year and eventually for the abolition of slavery.
The following month, Congress created the Department of Agriculture, which would help fuel the nation’s agrarian growth in the wake of war. Lincoln called it “the people’s department.”
About the same time came the Homestead Act, which allowed anyone older than 21 who had never taken up arms against the U.S. government to apply for 160 acres of land to call his own.
A million Americans did just that, and the result was the nation’s rapid westward expansion.
That same frontier spirit lay behind the Pacific Railway Act of 1862, which authorized the construction of the first transcontinental railroad. It also involved granting millions of acres of public land to railroad companies building the project, which led to the development of new towns along the route.
In the summer of 1862, Congress passed the Morrill Act, also known as the Land Grant College Act, which granted each state 30,000 acres per congressional seat. Funds from the sale of those lands were used to establish new universities and enhance existing ones. Scores of major colleges throughout the country, from Cornell to Clemson to Texas A&M, grew out of that effort.