Donald Kennon, Senior Editor
US Capitol Historical Society
The American Civil War was the first military conflict in history to be fought with railroads moving troops and the telegraph connecting civilian leadership to commanders in the field. New developments arose at a moment’s notice. As a result, the young nation’s political structure and culture often struggled to keep up. When war began, Congress was not even in session.
“When Lincoln took office, in March 1861, the national government had no power to touch slavery in the states where it existed. Lincoln understood this, and said as much in his first inaugural address, noting: ‘I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists.’”
During the long decade from 1848 to 1861 America was like a train speeding down the track, without an engineer or brakes. The new territories acquired from Mexico had vastly increased the size of the nation, but debate over their status—and more importantly the status of slavery within them—paralyzed the nation. Southerners gained access to the territories and a draconian fugitive slave law in the Compromise of 1850, but this only exacerbated sectional tensions.
Few images of early America were more striking, and jarring, than that of slaves in the capital city of the world’s most important free republic. Black slaves served and sustained the legislators, bureaucrats, jurists, cabinet officials, military leaders, and even the presidents who lived and worked there.
In 1815 the United States was a proud and confident nation. Its second war with England had come to a successful conclusion, and Americans seemed united as never before. The collapse of the Federalist party left the Jeffersonian Republicans in control of virtually all important governmental offices. This period of harmony—what historians once called the Era of Good Feeling—was not illusory, but it was far from stable.