The years after the Civil War, until 1877, were replete with novel uncertainties. The country had changed: the qualities that defined antebellum America had vanished; those who had been the most vocal before the war—soon-to-be Confederates—had seen their soapbox taken by the “Radical Republicans,” Republicans who sought to not only end slavery but to bring into effect equality amongst the races. Regardless of political party or geographic location, the country and its citizens had the task of reconstructing the United States, every one of them, and that task began before the Civil War’s end. President Abraham Lincoln spoke of his hope to reconcile the “disorganized and discordant elements” of the country, and he said: “I presented a plan of re-construction (as the phrase goes) which, I promised, if adopted by any State, should be acceptable to, and sustained by, the Executive government of the nation. I distinctly stated that this was not the only plan which might possibly be acceptable.”[i] Lincoln died four days later without fully setting forth his vision for how the nation may reconstruct itself, but events would soon render that vision—broad and ambiguous as it was—antiquated: soon after his death, the same federal government that had grown to enjoy extraordinary power (such as suspending the writ of habeas corpus) would go from having an authentic political genius, Lincoln, at its helm to having Andrew Johnson, a disagreeable at best (belligerent at worst) as executive; and not so long after Johnson took power, roving bands of the Ku Klux Klan acted in concert with state officials throughout the South to subjugate—by any means—those who had been freed.Read more
By the end of 1864—with Union General William Tecumseh Sherman having cut his way through Georgia, Union General Ulysses S. Grant having confined Confederate General Robert E. Lee to a defensive position in Virginia, and President Abraham Lincoln having won his bid for re-election—the Confederacy was desperate for any sign of encouragement. While the rhetoric from Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Vice President Alexander Stephens had remained buoyant, and despite newspaper headlines throughout the South continuing to cheer for the cause, the Confederacy was nowhere near the crest it had enjoyed in 1863. Having lost the chance to put the Union on the defensive that year, the rebels now found their western and southern borders closing in on them. If ever there was going to be a negotiated peace, the chances of it occurring were rapidly diminishing as 1865 dawned. Read more
Confederate President Jefferson Davis, on the 130th anniversary of George Washington’s birthdate, was due to be inaugurated for a second time. Davis ran unopposed in the first (and only) presidential election in the Confederate States of America and was set to begin his six-year term on February 22, 1862. His daily responsibilities as president left him more involved in paperwork than any other activity, and the beginning of the day of his second inauguration was scarcely different from any other day for Davis: he did an hour of paperwork before preparing for the ceremony.[i] Read more
Abraham Lincoln’s victory in the Election of 1860 was disconcerting news for the South. It was the most recent event in a string of events that seemingly endangered the southern way of life and the future of the country. At a time when many northerners suspected southern threats of secession were but a bluff, there was evidence that the country had already split and the formalities were soon to follow. Read more
In 1844, Asa Whitney, a merchant in New York, proposed that a transcontinental railroad be built. While he hoped to lead the construction of the railroad and reap the benefits of the ambitious project, that was not to be. However, three components of his plan captured the spirit of Americans toward the construction of the railroad: “There must be a railroad to the Pacific; it must be financed by grants of public lands along the route; and it must be built by private interests which received these grants.” David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 146. Read more
During President James Polk’s administration, Congress grappled with resolving sectional tension arising out of whether slavery would be extended to newly acquired land from Mexico as well as the Oregon territory. Congress did not resolve that sectional tension but exacerbated it in what may have been one of the most deadlocked and destructive Congresses in American history. Read more
Some Americans may suppose that during wartime, partisanship declines and a sense of unity prevails. During the Mexican-American War, this was not the case. The Whigs were vocal in their disagreement with President James Polk and the Democrats.