Today marks the 148th anniversary of a major turning point in U.S. history that is neither universally remembered nor uniformly celebrated.
On April 9, 1865, Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant in Appomattox Court House, Virginia. The bloodiest and most devastating war in U.S. history, one that cost about 620,000 lives, came to an end after four long years.
Most Americans understand that the Civil War accomplished two huge goals: It preserved the nation’s unity and freed the slaves.
However, the crisis had another result that often goes unnoticed. The secession of southern states from the Union in 1860-61, with its exodus of southerners from Congress, gave control of that body to the Republican Party, then less than a decade old. During the war years, its domination enabled Congress to enact sweeping legislation that shaped the economy and society for decades.
Four laws, in particular, would have far-reaching effects. The National Banking Act, enacted in February 1863 and amended in June 1864, laid the foundation for modern finance by establishing a national banking system.
By requiring national banks to invest one-third of their capital in U.S. securities and allowing them to issue bank notes up to 90 percent of their bond holdings, the measure provided the basis for a national currency to replace state bank notes. In March 1865, Congress imposed a 10 percent tax on state bank notes to drive them out of circulation. Although far from perfect, the new system dominated national finance until the advent of the Federal Reserve System in 1914.
The Homestead Act, signed in May 1862, allowed any citizen, including women and freed slaves, to file a claim for 160 acres of surveyed federal land -- provided they were at least 21 years old or head of a household and had never taken up arms against the government. Although much of the land fell into the hands of speculators, the act opened up settlement of the West to large numbers of people who could otherwise have never afforded the land.
The Pacific Railroad Acts of 1862 and 1864 made possible construction of the first rail line from the Missouri River to the West Coast, thereby connecting California and Oregon to the rest of the nation. It also hastened the settlement and development of the region in between, long dismissed by easterners as the Great American Desert, and set in motion a frenzy of railroad building.
The Morrill Act of July 1862 transformed education and scientific research. Under its provisions, every loyal state was granted 30,000 acres of public land for each senator and representative it had in Congress. The proceeds from the sale of the land were to be used for endowing at least one agricultural college in the state. Ultimately, 69 land-grant colleges were created, and they became the backbone of agricultural and other kinds of research, as well as the mainstays of U.S. higher education.
Prior to secession, every one of these acts got bogged down in sectional politics after being debated for years. Two of them, the Homestead and Morrill acts, passed Congress only to be vetoed by President James Buchanan. All of them have proved crucial to economic growth since the Civil War.
So, regardless of your sectional preference, it is worth raising a toast on Appomattox Day.
(Maury Klein is a professor of history emeritus at the University of Rhode Island and the author of 16 books on American history. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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