“The work has been performed by devoting not only almost every hour of each day, (Sundays not excepted,) but many hours of night, to continuous labor beyond the endurance of most men,” Spinner wrote in a report.
To help pay for the Civil War, the government had abandoned the gold standard and was printing greenbacks for the first time. The new notes had to be cut and counted, and Spinner, a motivated bureaucrat in tight budget times, turned to an untapped labor pool that would work for less than the going wage: women.
This is how the federal government began to remake itself into a national, wartime force. The Civil War and its wartime Congresses gave birth to many of the pillars of the modern federal government.
The government sold bonds for the first time and Congress approved the first national banking system. The Agriculture Department was born to help farmers. A national cemetery system was created to bury the Union dead.
Congress passed the nation’s first income tax — necessitating a whole new staff that today numbers 93,000.
Government contracting exploded, with private companies supplying weapons and gunpowder, mules and blankets in what would become a model for late 19th-century industrialists.
“Before the war, there was a federal government and a bureaucracy,” said Richard Bensel, an American political historian at Cornell University. “But there was no allegiance to a national government.” After the war, “you have a social base that supports federal power. That’s a big change.”
The Bureau of Pensions, which opened to write checks to wounded soldiers and the families of the dead, did not just grow into one of the country’s biggest bureaucracies and earliest social welfare systems; it became a sort of national retirement system that buoyed the Republican political machine. (The bureau was folded into the new Veterans Administration in 1930.)
Without Southern Democrats to impede them, activist Congresses authorized land grants for new universities, western settlers and a transcontinental railroad. Three key amendments to the Constitution adopted shortly after the war — abolishing slavery, guaranteeing equal protection and giving African Americans the right to vote — further cemented federal power.
There were 5,837 federal employees in 1861, excluding the 30,000 postal workers who represented the largest arm of government before the war and well after. By 1871, based on data from the first census after the war, that number had grown to 15,344.
Today the workforce stands at roughly 2 million.
Jobs as patronage
Who would fill these new jobs? Connections mattered.
Right up to the final hours before his inauguration, Abraham Lincoln was mobbed by crowds at the White House steps. Not all were well-wishers.
They were desperate for jobs in the new government. “I have waited some 6 hours with the view of having a five minute interview with thee,” an irate man wrote, claiming his “rights” to a federal appointment. The spectacle drew this parody from humorist Artemus Ward: “Good God! cride Old ABE, ‘they cum upon me from the skize — down the chimneys and from the bowels of the yearth!’ ”