April 6, 2021: On the Republican PartyRoundup
tags: infrastructure, Republican Party, Abraham Lincoln, political history
Heather Cox Richardson is Professor of History at Boston College and author most recently of How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America.
I spent much of today thinking about the Republican Party. Its roots lie in the immediate aftermath of the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in spring 1854, when it became clear that elite southern slaveholders had taken control of the federal government and were using their power to spread their system of human enslavement across the continent.
At first, members of the new party knew only what they stood against: an economic system that concentrated wealth upward and made it impossible for ordinary men to prosper. But in 1859, their new spokesman, Illinois lawyer Abraham Lincoln, articulated a new vision of government. Rather than using government power solely to protect the property of wealthy slaveholders, Lincoln argued, the government should work to make it possible for all men to get equal access to resources, including education, so they could rise to economic security.
As a younger man, Lincoln had watched his town of New Salem die because the settlers in the town did not have the resources to dredge the Sangamon River to increase their river trade. Had the government simply been willing to invest in the economic development that was too much for the willing workers of New Salem, it could have brought prosperity to the men who, for lack of investment, failed and abandoned their town. The government, Lincoln thought, must develop the country’s infrastructure.
Once in power, the Republicans did precisely that. After imposing the first national taxes, including an income tax, lawmakers set out to enable men to be able to pay those taxes by using the government to give ordinary men access to resources. In 1862, they passed the Homestead Act, giving western land to anyone willing to settle it; the Land-Grant College Act, providing funds to establish state universities; the act establishing the Department of Agriculture, to provide scientific information and good seeds to farmers; and the Pacific Railway Act, providing for the construction of a railroad across the continent to get men to the fields and the mines of the West.
In 1902, Republicans fascinated with infrastructure projects joined forces with southern Democrats desperate for flood control to pass the Newlands Reclamation Act. Under the act, the federal government built more than 600 dams in 20 western states to bring water to farmland. “The sound and steady development of the West depends upon the building up of homes therein,” President Theodore Roosevelt wrote. Water from the western dams now irrigates more than 10 million acres, which produce about 60% of the nation’s vegetables and 25% of its fruits (and nuts).
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