Thursday, December 1, 2011

The 2nd Session of the 37th Congress Convenes

150 years ago today, the second session of the 37th Congress convened at noon as prescribed by the U.S. Constitution.  Ordinarily, this would have been the first session of the new Congress, but a special session had been held from July 4, 1861-August to fund the raising of a 400,000 man army at President Lincoln's request.   Although no Supercommittee awaited the returning congressmen, legislators certainly had plenty to deal with on that first Monday in December 1861.  A lot had happened since they last met at the Capitol on August 6th.  Unfortunately, recent military activity did not augur well for the Union cause and Congress reacted by creating a 19th century joint supercommittee, the Joint Committee on the Conduct of War to "inquire into the causes of the disasters."

A 1861 sketch of the U.S. Capitol (US Senate Art Collection)

"Death of Col. Baker" (LOC)

 While General McClellan was rebuilding the Army of the Potomac, many Republican legislators already had doubts about his loyalty and willingness to fight.  Just a month and a half earlier, a small Union force had been routed 30 miles up the Potomac at Ball's Bluff near Leesburg.  Union losses in this debacle included Colonel Edward D. Baker, a sitting Republican Senator from Oregon and close friend of the President.  A congressional committee, the Joint Committee of the Conduct of the War, would later target Democratic leaning military generals in the search for a scapegoat for this and other military setbacks.

In a diary entry, Patent Office clerk Horatio Nelson Taft noted that with Congress back in session, Pennsylvania Avenue was "thronged from morning till late at night," and that all of the hotels were crowded with visitors.  In Taft's opinion, the Congressional session promised to be "the most important perhaps that has been convened for half a Century at least."  The Washington National Republican confidently predicted that "the session of Congress which commences today, will be the most memorable which has yet occurred in this country under either the Articles of Confederation, or the present Constitution ... not excepting even the session when the Declaration of Independence was agreed upon."

Predictions of  the importance of this Congressional session proved prescient.  Congress  got down to business after taking care of some administrative matters.  On the first day of the session, Senator Lyman Trumbull, a Republican from Illinois and chairman of the Judiciary committee, introduced a new confiscation bill, which would authorize the seizure of all rebel property, regardless of whether it was used directly to support the Confederate war effort or not.   The  measure was intended to facilitate the emancipation of the slaves in rebelling states.  In the House of Representatives, Congressman Eliot of Massachusetts offered a resolution that declared that the President has the right to "emancipate all persons held as slaves in any military district in a state of insurrection against the National Government. 

In his opening prayers, the Chaplain of the House "prayed specially and distinctly for 'the slave', which sounded rather strangely in such a place, and in a slaveholding community," according to the Washington National Republican.In the House, 114 members were present for the opening session on December 2nd and four newly elected members were sworn in.  However, the House referred the issue of whether or not to seat two newly elected Representatives from Virginia and one from North Carolina to the Committee on Elections.  House members also voted to expel a Missouri congressman who was serving in the Confederate army. 

Two days into the new session, the Senate formally expelled John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky who had already left Washington to serve in the Confederate army despite the fact that Kentucky remained in the Union. On December 10th, Senator Benjamin Wade of Ohio chaired the first session of the new Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, which would meet 272 times over the next four years.'

Critical issues that would be addressed during this regular session of the 37th Congress would include the legal tender bill (greenbacks), the internal revenue bill (nation's first income tax), the confiscation bill, the admission of West Virginia as a state, and various loans and other financial issues.

Senate seating diagram, as printed in the Congressional Directory, for the third session of the 37th Congress.  The empty seats represent those vacated by southerners.  During the war, it was not uncommon for congressional deliberations to be interrupted by the presiding officer reading a dispatch from the War Department announcing the result of a recent battle.  Unfortunately, there were few decisive victories to applaud during the 2nd session of the 37th Congress.


The Diary of Horatio Nelson Taft, December 6, 1861 (available online from Library of Congress)
Washington National Republican, December 2 and December 3, 1861

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