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. By the time it met, the government had mobilized over 100,000 soldiers, battles had been fought, casualties had been taken, some civilians had violently opposed the war effort, and emancipation was under way.
This set the stage for Congress to play catch-up for much of the conflict. The result was an ongoing race to pass new laws and set policies. Throughout it all, Congress had to answer to a fractured and demanding public. In addition, Congress, no longer paralyzed by large numbers of Southern slave owners, moved forward on progressive economic and social issues—such as the transcontinental railroad and the land grant college act—which could not previously have been passed.
In Congress and the People’s Contest, Paul Finkelman and Donald R. Kennon have assembled some of the nation’s finest scholars of American history and law to evaluate the interactions between Congress and the American people as they navigated a cataclysmic and unprecedented war. Displaying a variety and range of focus that will make the book a classroom must, these essays show how these interactions took place—sometimes successfully, and sometimes less so.
Contributors: L. Diane Barnes, Fergus M. Bordewich, Jenny Bourne, Jonathan Earle, Lesley J. Gordon, Mischa Honeck, Chandra Manning, Nikki M. Taylor, and Eric Walther.
Paul Finkelman is an expert on constitutional history, the law of slavery, and the American Civil War. He coedits the Ohio University Press series New Approaches to Midwestern Studies and is the president of Gratz College. More info →
Donald R. Kennon is the former chief historian and vice president of the United States Capitol Historical Society. He is editor of the Ohio University Press series Perspectives on the History of Congress, 1789–1801. More info →
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In 1863, as the Civil War raged, the escaped slave, abolitionist, and novelist William Wells Brown identified two groups most harmful to his race. “The first and most relentless,” he explained, “are those who have done them the greatest injury, by being instrumental in their enslavement and consequent degradation.
Despite his military achievements and his association with many of the great names of American history, Godfrey Weitzel (1835–1884) is perhaps the least known of all the Union generals. After graduating from West Point, Weitzel, a German immigrant from Cincinnati, was assigned to the Army Corps of Engineers in New Orleans.
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.
“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.’”