Ah, government. There is nothing quite like it. From shutdowns to gridlocks to filibusters, whether we like it or not, the U.S. government wields tremendous power over the fate of the nation and its implications in our lives. This week, we’ll look at three moments in American history where a simple stroke of the pen by a Washington politician caused ripple effects. So, let’s dive in!
On Mar. 2, 1807, 215 years ago, Congress abolished the trans-Atlantic African slave trade.
Though the end of slavery in America would not come until the conclusion of the Civil War, the African slave trade ended more than a half century prior. Beginning in 1619, when the first ship carrying captured Africans docked in Jamestown, Virginia, the slave trade was crucial to the colonial economy, with all thirteen of the original colonies taking part in the practice in some form.
Since large-scale farming was not popular in the North, slavery became less prominent and was eventually abolished by most Northern states after the Revolution. The invention of the cotton gin prevented a similar trend in the South as King Cotton became the staple crop of the Antebellum South.
The slave trade was losing popularity on the world stage as other nations looked down upon the young U.S. for priding its economy on the buying and selling of human beings. Though the trans-Atlantic slave trade was abolished and should be seen as a step in the right direction, the end of the slave trade caused and expansion of laws regarding the fate of children born to enslaved people, with Southern slave owners encouraging their slaves to procreate to fill the fields.
On Mar. 3, 1863, 159 years ago, Congress passed the Civil War Conscription Act, the first wartime draft of Americans ever in history.
Halfway through the Civil War, the bloodiest conflict in American history, both the Union and the Confederacy needed more soldiers on the frontlines if their causes were to carry on. All those anxious to fight and carry their banners behind enemies lines were either dead or injured, pressing the federal government to demand service from those who did not originally enlist.
The draft demanded all able-bodied male citizens between the ages of 20 and 45 report for duty by the end of the month, as well as all immigrants who had intentions of becoming citizens. The one way to avoid the draft was quite literally to buy oneself out of it. A $300 check to the U.S. federal government was the price of freedom from the draft.
While this was no skin off the nose of the wealthy, including the conscription-age politicians who voted in favor of the bill in Congress, it was quite the hefty sum for the everyday working man — equal to almost $7,000 in today’s money. Working-class farmers, factory workers and immigrants who needed to provide for families were uprooted and angry, hardly the soldiers Lincoln had hoped for.
Anti-draft sentiments would reach their boiling point in New York City, as Irish immigrants took to the streets, marching from the Irish enclave of the Five Points, taking over the city and burning important civic buildings to the ground in defiance. The tragedy of the New York City Draft Riots, however, were attacks aimed at the free Black neighborhoods of the city, whom the Irish blamed for the war to begin. While the Lower East Side had once been a place of relative cultural and racial coexistence, the city was torn apart on the basis of race, killing more than 100 innocent New Yorkers.
On Mar. 1, 1872, 150 years ago, President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law the creation of Yellowstone National Park, the first national park in American history.
Quite possibly the greatest decision the U.S. government has ever made, the creation of the national park system galvanized the public park movement at home and abroad.
Throughout the entirety of the 19th century, “manifest destiny” was the policy of the federal government. The rugged wilderness of the Wild West was something to be tamed and economized rather than preserved. Even in small municipalities, the idea of setting aside land to be enjoyed in its natural state was nearly unheard of. Why should New York City leave acres of land aside for Central Park when houses could be built and money could be made?
In truth, several Washington politicians who signed off on this decision only agreed to do so because they thought the Yellowstone lands did not have any prospects for gold-mining or oil-drilling. Though intentions were far from pure, this piece of legislation marked the first of 63 sites to be preserved under the national park system.