How the US Government Became So Big | Time Capsule

Here we are in front of our
nation’s capitol building, and as you can see, they’re
doing a little restoration on it. MATT WEBER: But in 1861,
when President Lincoln was inaugurated, that
dome didn’t even exist. It was still under construction. CRAIG BENZINE: In
fact, Lincoln insisted that they continue building
it, even through the Civil War. Since then, a lot of government
buildings and programs have been built, and
along with that growth has been a lot of debate. CRAIG BENZINE: With the recent
inclusion of the Affordable Care Act, a lot of people
think that our government has gotten too big. But if you think the reach
of the federal government expanded a lot in
the past few years, that’s nothing compared
to the change that happened over the
course of the Civil War. [MUSIC PLAYING] Today the federal government
does a lot of stuff. It makes the laws, regulates
industry and commerce, and provides for the defense
of the entire country. But before the Civil War,
the federal government was not nearly as visible nor
as powerful as it is today. No, it wasn’t, Matt. Like before the Civil
War, how did people, like, view the federal government? Like, did they even think of
it as like the government that is controlling everything, or– No, because it didn’t. MATT WEBER: This is Ed Ayers,
history professor and President Emeritus at the
University of Richmond, and he’s also a host on
the NPR show Back Story. So the federal government
didn’t do too many things before the Civil War. It collected taxes
at the borders. It ran the post office. MATT WEBER: Most
important decisions were made at the state level
rather than the federal one. The main thing the
federal government did was distribute land. The United States is still
growing and expanding into the west, and
there were only like 33 or 34
states at the time, depending on what month
we’re talking about. CRAIG BENZINE: But
there were vast amounts of territory in the west that
the government was divvying up. Because the United
States was taking land from the American Indians, and
suddenly there was free land. But in general, the
federal government was a government out of sight. You didn’t see it very much. And the government
that you knew was a government of your locality,
your county government, your city government, maybe
your congressman, maybe your senator, that
the president– quick, name presidents before
Abraham Lincoln, right? You have a hard time. George Washington. Yeah, exactly. And then yadda, yadda, yadda,
Abraham Lincoln, right? So the Civil War is
basically about government, and it’s about the
question of are we a nation or are we a union of states? Does the federal government
have responsibility for the common welfare
and the common law, or can individual
states determine if they will obey a federal law? And most profoundly,
if a state disagrees with what the majority
in the federal government have decreed, may it
leave the United States? MATT WEBER: Remember that
land that the government was in charge of distributing? CRAIG BENZINE: Mm-hmm MATT WEBER: Well, Abraham
Lincoln campaigned for the presidency, promising
to stop the spread of slavery into those Western territories. CRAIG BENZINE: And
before Abraham Lincoln was even elected,
the Southern states threaten to secede
from the union over the issue of slavery. MATT WEBER: The
economy in the South depended on the
institution of slavery, and they saw this
prohibition as detrimental to their livelihood. So they said, to heck
with you Lincoln! We’re out of here! CRAIG BENZINE: And by the time
of Lincoln’s inauguration, seven states did secede,
forming their own government and declaring their independence
from the federal government. These states had
many grievances, but at the top of the list
was the protection of slavery. And then suddenly
the question becomes, is they’re going to be
a federal government? You know, Abraham
Lincoln, one reason he resists the secessionist
is he says if it starts by breaking off the South,
what’s to stop California and Oregon from breaking off? What’s stop New England from
becoming it’s own nation as opposed to the Midwest? And so there’s the real question
of will the United States as we know it, unified by
federal government, exist? MATT WEBER: So if Lincoln
wanted to keep the United States united, he’d have to
assert more federal control than the country had ever
used before in its history. CRAIG BENZINE: With the South’s
attack on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, the Civil
War began and the issue of keeping the Union together
became a military effort. ED AYERS: And If
you told anybody that the War is going
to last four years and kill the equivalent
of over 8 million people today, and end the largest and
most powerful system of slavery in the modern world
in four years, nobody would believe that. That was impossible. How did it happen? The United States was able to
tap the power, the latent power of its federal government. So what did the government have
to do to prepare for the War and get ready for it? The short answer is everything. You know, there’s not
a large American army, and Americans didn’t
believe in large armies. MATT WEBER: At the
beginning of the Civil War, the US Army consisted of only
an estimated 16,000 soldiers, and those soldiers
were scattered all across the country from
the Atlantic to the Pacific. And many of those
soldiers in the South resigned and joined
the Confederate army. The Civil War’s amazing in
that both sides basically had to create
everything they used to fight each other for
four years from scratch. MATT WEBER: The
federal government would need to fund all
the normal things for war, except in a much larger
scale than ever before. CRAIG BENZINE: The United States
would need ships, cannons, uniforms, food supplies, and
anything an army might need. And the United States doesn’t
have enough money to do this. So one of the most important
and enduring things that happens in the Civil War
is that the federal government and the North
invents greenbacks. MATT WEBER: Before the Civil
War, believe it or not, we didn’t have a national paper
currency like we do today. CRAIG BENZINE: At that
time the only kind of money issued by
the federal government came in the form of
gold and silver coins. There were paper
notes in circulation, but they consisted of a
complicated system of script and promissory notes issued
by privately owned banks. But if the banks weren’t good
for the money or dissolved, the notes became worthless. When it became apparent
that the Union wasn’t going to be able to finance
the War without borrowing a significant amount of money
from foreign money changers at high interest rates,
the Legal Tender Act was passed on February 25, 1862. This was the brainchild
of Colonel Dick Taylor, an old friend of
Lincoln’s who he enlisted to solve the
problem of financing the War. His solution was to
print money– lots of it. His plan allowed the
government to issue greenbacks, paper currency that
was solely backed by the promise of the
federal government and not reserves of gold. CRAIG BENZINE: When
Lincoln asked him if the people would accept
greenbacks as legal tender, he basically said,
of course they will. Duh. They have to, we’re
the government. LOL. So this is really the birth of
paper money as we think of it. And without it,
the United States wouldn’t exist because it’s how
they paid for the Civil War. MATT WEBER: The
federal government would print over $450 million
of debt free legal tender over the course of the War,
making a National Army as well as a national currency. CRAIG BENZINE:
From 1861 to 1865, the United States battled
the Confederate states, ending with General
Lee’s surrender to Grant on April 9, 1865. As news of Lee’s
surrender spread, other Confederate general
surrendered as well, ending the rebellion
and effectively uniting the country. But just because
the War was over didn’t mean that the
government’s responsibility to its army was over. Hundreds of
thousands of soldiers were returning
home, many of them injured or disabled
from the War. The government had to make
sure these veterans were taken care of and properly
reimbursed for their service. It’s the largest expenditure
of the federal government– pensions for Civil War
soldiers and their widows. And so a lot of what
we might think of today as big government, social
welfare, an safety net and all that, it’s actually provided to
the veterans and their families of the American Civil War. The Pension Act of July 14,
1862 increased pension rates and provided
potential eligibility to every person in
military or naval service since the beginning of the war. Congress expanded
this act in 1890 to include disabilities
not directly due to war and in 1906, amended
it to include old age. MATT WEBER: Money had never
been spent like this before, and the legislators
at the time we’re dubbed the billion
dollar congress. It doesn’t sound
like a big number now, but that was a big
number at the time. And a huge part of
that would’ve been going to Civil War soldiers. So this is another
way that the Civil War does transform the role
of the federal government in American life. But it wasn’t
just soldiers that depended on the aid of
the federal government after the war. CRAIG BENZINE: There were over
four million freed African Americans, and they had to make
the transition from slavery to wage labor, and they
had now where to turn. You don’t have any
institutions that are created, mental institutions
or hospitals, schools, anything for the African
American population. So where’s that
going to come from? The white South didn’t
want it in the first place, and they don’t have any money
left because they spend it all on fighting an unsuccessful
war against the United States. So even before the War
is completely ended, the largest
experiment in what we would think of as
a social welfare by the federal
government begins. And it’s to aid people who had
been dislocated by the Civil War, and people who have
been the victims of 200 years of slavery. This experiment was called
the Freedman’s Bureau. It was established under the
direction of Abraham Lincoln on March 3, 1865,
and it’s major aim was to help the slaves in the
reconstruction of the South. CRAIG BENZINE: The Bureau helped
them obtain food, clothing, health care, and jobs. MATT WEBER: One of the
most important things it did was set up schools,
and by the end of 1865, over 90,000 freed
slaves were enrolled and receiving an education. Nothing like this had
ever been attempted before, and it was one of the federal
government’s first forays into large scale social welfare. So if we think about
the role of Civil War in the federal
government today, we know that it basically
created the federal government of today. It created our basic currency. It created the precedent
that federal government can be a source of rights
for people who are otherwise deprived of rights. It could be used when
the state governments are incapable of doing so, of
providing a social safety net. All those are huge
precedence for our own time. The Civil War showed
for people who want those things, what it can do. For people who don’t
want those things, it’s even today still used as
an example of federal overreach. It’s never going to go away. It’s never– we’re
never just going to say, OK, the federal
government should expand as much as it wants to,
because the United States Constitution is built
around a federal system. I use the word federal,
by which people often seem to mean national, right? Federal really means that
the states have power and the national
government has power, and the federal system is one
in which that power is shared. And because the United
States is built around that, we’ll always be
having a conversation about where’s the right line
between federal and state power. So what do you think? Where is that line,
and what is the role of the federal government? I’m sure you could answer
that without any arguments. And should a state
be able to secede if it disagrees with the feds? Let us know in the comments. Don’t secede from the
comments section, OK? Yeah, let’s stay united
in our commentary. Yeah. This is episode is brought
to you by PBS Learning Media, a great source
for classroom resources on Civil War history. If you’re interested in
finding more video and lesson plans on what we
talked about today, you can check out our
page on Learning Media. And for a more dramatic
take on the Civil War, check out the new series
“Mercy Street” on PBS. A lot of what we
explored in this episode gets talked about
on that show, too, so head on over to to find out more. [MUSIC PLAYING]

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