A Fee-Based Government

President Rutherford B. Hayes.

Rutherford B. Hayes, from the moment that he “won” the Election of 1876, had many opponents. And, because he believed that having opponents meant you must be doing something right, he relished the fight with his opposition. One issue that Hayes prioritized was reforming the fee-based governance system, the system that empowered government officials to use “fees, bounties, subsidies, and contracts with private individuals or corporations to enforce laws and implement public policy.”[i] With the federal government having significantly grown from the antebellum era, those officials had accrued and would continue to accrue power in novel ways. Reforming that system—if, in fact, Hayes sought to do that—would not be something he could have hoped to do during his time as President.

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The Election of 1876

The Inauguration of the 19th President of the United States. 1877.

In celebrating America’s first centennial, on July 4, 1876, one must have recalled the tumult of that century: a war to secure independence, a second war to defend newly-obtained independence, and then a civil war the consequences of which the country was still grappling with eleven years after its end. But there also had been extraordinary success in that century, albeit not without cost; by the 100-year mark, the country had shown itself and the world that its Constitution—that centerpiece of democracy—was holding strong (with 18 Presidents, 44 Congresses, and 43 Supreme Court justices already having served their government by that time), and the country had expanded several times over in geographic size, putting it in command of a wealth of resources as its cities, industries, and agriculture prospered. Several months after the centennial celebration was the next presidential election, and during the life of the country, while most elections had gone smoothly, some had not—the elections of 1800 and 1824 were resolved by the House of Representatives choosing the victor as no candidate secured a majority of Electoral College votes and the election of 1860 was soon followed by the secession of Southern states. And yet, even with those anomalous elections in view, the upcoming election of 1876 was to become one unlike any other in American history.

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The Rise of Wage Labor

Chicago in the Late 1800s.

During the Gilded Age, millions of Americans saw their work lives transform: no longer would it be so common for the working man or woman to survive based on what he or she produced; rather, that worker would receive payment—from an employer or a contractor—for the time worked. That change allowed for the possibility during the Gilded Age for the older generation to reflect on their younger years, before the Civil War, and how they had sold most of what they had grown or made (and how they had then needed a wide variety of skills to not only grow or make those goods but to bring those goods to market and actually sell them). During the Gilded Age, that same generation could have been working the last years of their working lives reporting to a factory for work; work that likely had a significant element of danger and that may have required them to use a fraction of the skills that had served as their saving grace during their younger years. For the generations of Americans that have come after the Gilded Age, the system of wage labor has been no oddity. It became a substantial part of the modern way of life and not only in America. What would have struck and should strike subsequent generations, however, were the mechanics of the American economy in which wage labor was born and how the wage labor system in its rawest form did not extend even some of the most basic protections to workers.

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The Anaconda Plan

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General Winfield Scott and his Staff Officers.

Although George McClellan succeeded Winfield Scott as general in chief of the Union army in late 1861, Scott had already set a plan in motion that would, in one form or another, last the duration of the war. It was a plan that would be a factor in constricting the Confederate economy, choking the Confederacy into a defensive posture from which it would be impossible to escape. Read more

On to Richmond

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Troops Assembled in Front of the U.S. Capitol Building in 1861.

Although the Confederacy had awakened the North’s spirit by initiating hostilities at Fort Sumter, both sides could have still hoped for reconciliation. While some advocated for immediate peace, others wished for a full prosecution of war against the South, viewing its expanding secession as nothing short of treason. By the end of spring 1861, there was a decisive answer to the question of whether there would soon be peace. Read more

The Awakened Giant

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A Crowd Gathering in New York City’s Union Square in 1861. Harper’s Weekly (May 4, 1861), at 277.

The news from Fort Sumter spread throughout the country, and its coming awakened a restless energy in the North. That energy ignited patriotism and a new sense of collectivism throughout northern cities and states that would lead to a then-unparalleled war effort directed against the Confederacy. Read more

The Precursor to the Winter of Secession

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Washington in 1860. Photographer Unknown.

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

The Election of 1860

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The United States Capitol in 1860. Courtesy: Library of Congress

Every presidential election is consequential, but the Election of 1860 would play a significant role in whether the United States would remain one nation. The division of the North and South on the issue of slavery threatened to cause a secession of the South. The result of the election would determine whether that threat would materialize and cause a Second American Revolution. Read more

The Raid on Harpers Ferry

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Depiction of the Raid on Harpers Ferry.

For the bulk of the early 19th Century, slaveholders in the South had a deep fear that a slave revolt would erupt and metastasize, leading to an eradication of the institution, similar to what happened in Haiti in the first years of the 19th Century. In 1859, John Brown, one of the instigators in Bleeding Kansas, would attempt to lead such a revolt, starting at a federal armory in Harpers Ferry, Virginia. The immediate effects of his raid would pale in comparison to its impact over the course of the following two years. Read more