The Greatest Nation of the Earth: Republican Economic Policies During the Civil War. – Review

The Greatest Nation of the Earth: Republican Economic Policies During the Civil War. – Review – book review

James A. Hodges

The Greatest Nation of the Earth: Republican Economic Policies During the Civil War. By Heather Cox Richardson. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997. Pp. vii, 342. $35.00.)

In the midst of a new tidal wave of scholarship about Civil War battles, this book, which gives a detailed look at the domestic legislation of the Republican Congresses of 1861-1865, gives relief from the gory details of the battlefields and the controversies surrounding military leadership. Richardson argues that to understand the ideology of late nineteenth-century Americans and the laissez-faire foundation of the industrial America they created, historians have to understand the legislative achievements of wartime Republicans and the ideas behind that legislation. The Republicans transformed the federal government into an activist government that would encourage and aid a prosperous economy for all its citizens. The government would place the economy in the hands of free individuals and they would make the United States the greatest nation of the earth.

In the first chapter, she introduces the reader to the new Republicans who convened for the first time on 4 July 1861, and who came with a variety of beliefs. The six successive chapters group their legislation by topics–the creation of federal lands to pay for the war, the patchwork construction of a national currency to replace the old decentralized state system, the overhauling of the tariff system to protect American industry and agriculture, the invention of a federal income tax, the passage of the agricultural acts, the building of a transcontinental railroad, and, finally, the legislation that ended slavery. All the chapters follow a similar structure. Richardson presents the problems as seen at the time and the various ideological beliefs of key Republicans as they argued for solutions. Using the Congressional Globe, congressional reports, numerous reminiscences, collections of letters, and diaries, she follows the debates, the compromises that conflicting ideologies dictated, and the eventual passage of the legislation. She gives depth and understanding to sometimes difficult issues. For example, her explanation of the monetary legislation is a model of clarity. Even the most economically impaired person should understand how the national currency came about. Always the ideological argument of the legislation comes clear and loud despite the often discordant solutions offered by Republicans.

Richardson argues that, although there is much to praise in the wartime Republican remaking of America, the “American paradise” their ideology claimed to have made turned into a world of “wealthy monopolists and impoverished workers and farmers” by the turn of the century (251). The Republicans did not, she argues, as they created an activist federal government that aided big business, develop a role for the federal government as regulator of business or as a protector of the losers in American capitalism. In the fifty years after the war they failed to change their ideology as the country moved from a rural, small-farmer world to an industrialized, pluralistic America and that proved disastrous for the country. The argument that the wartime Republican thought became flawed theory over time permeates the book and is interesting, but the main strength of the book rests upon its clear description of the legislation and how it all came about. The book is a welcome addition to Leonard Curry’s more restricted Blue Print for Modern America (1966).

James A. Hodges The College of Wooster

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