Nothing illustrates how crisis fuels the growth of government better than the Civil War, or more precisely, the war against Southern secession. Historians endlessly debate the motives for the Souths secession and Abraham Lincolns violent effort to stop it. Southerners with an interest in perpetuating slavery surely feared for the future of their peculiar institution. But Lincolns reasons for preventing secession do not appear to have been related to slavery. His own statements indicate this, for example: My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. His preliminary Emancipation Proclamation was not issued until September 1862 and applied only to areas outside his jurisdiction, that is, within any State or designated part of a State the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States. The slaves under his authority, such as those in the border states and the parts of the Confederacy under Union control, were not freed during the war. Had slavery been the principal motive for Lincolns war, he might have found a way other than war to emancipate the slaves. After all, England and other countries had managed to do so peacefully.
Regardless of motives on either side, the government in Washington, D.C., indisputably and dramatically expanded its power under the cover of the national emergency. For example, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, the venerable principle under which people held by the government can demand a hearing before an independent judge. While the U.S. Constitution authorizes Congress to suspend habeas corpus in an emergency, the president is delegated no such power. Nevertheless, President Lincoln had war dissenters, including newspaper editors and political leaders, taken into custody. He also had newspapers closed, in clear violation of the Bill of Rights. During the war Americans had their first experience with national conscription, one of the most extreme forms of rights violation.
The federal government also expanded its financing of internal improvements, aiding railroads with land and loans, and granting land to states for the establishment of colleges. The Department of Agriculture and the position of Commissioner of Immigration were created during this period. The war also occasioned a veterans pension program, which was transformed into a source of patronage and vote buying that lived on long after the death of the last veteran.
While many of these interventions were eventually ended or scaled back, the federal government never returned to its pre-war size. More important, the political culture of the United States changed from one favoring decentralized and limited government to one more favorable to European-style centralized and intrusive bureaucracy. This was especially true among influential intellectuals. America was never the same.
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