Rethinking the second American revolution: legal tender and national banking in the Civil War era.

AuthorCaires, Michael T.
PositionCentennial of Charles Beard's 'Economic Interpretation of the Constitution'

Charles Beard had an undeniable flare for rethinking American History. These collected essays mark the anniversary of Beard's path-breaking, and now infamous, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution. Yet Beard, along with his wife Mary Ritter Beard, used that same view of the history of American politics and society to re-think, not just the founding, but the entire sweep of American history in their influential survey The Rise of American Civilization, published in 1927. One standout chapter of that book is their interpretation of the American Civil War. In "The Second American Revolution," the Beards argued that the real significance of the Civil War was not found in the war itself, but in the economic transformation of the North. This thesis has had a long life among scholars, and while portions of the Beardian story have been refuted, it is safe to say that the larger perspective offered by the Beards remains at the bedrock of how many historians view the overarching narrative and significance of the Civil War. (1)

My purpose in this essay is to provide a brief overview of the Beardian view of the Civil War and its current place in the historiography. I will then suggest some ways that the Beardian story fails us and our perspective on the history of American political economy during the war by discussing the origins of the Legal Tender Act and the National Banking Act in the Civil War Era. In short, what I would like to suggest is that these policies grew out of the failure of the antebellum monetary system and represented an effort to control and regulate the contours of American capitalism.


    The Beardian perspective has the benefit of being refreshingly simple and straightforward. People's material interests motivate their actions. A strong sub-theme of Beard's interpretation of American history is a constant story of what political scientists now term "capture." The forces of capital and industry use their power to hijack public institutions and realign them to create a political economy conducive to their interests. In his Economic Interpretation, there is a clear sense of class divisions as the capitalists and merchants unite to wrest control over the country's economic future from the more popular agrarian class. Applying the idea to the mid-nineteenth century, the Beards saw class as subsumed in region. They argued that southern secession allowed the forces of industry in the North to capture the federal government from the hands of the southern planter class, and with the capture began the ascendance of what they dubbed "the industrial age" in American history. (2)

    It's still a shocking thesis to read from the perspective of 21st century historiography. With sweeping prose, the Beards dismissed all the images of the war that their readers were accustomed to. The battles and generals were only a romantic gloss to the real substance of change that Beard found:

    [T]he core of the vortex lay elsewhere. It was in the flowing substance of things limned by statistical reports on finance, commerce, capital, industry, railways, and agriculture, by provisions of constitutional law, and by the pages of statute books--prosaic muniments which show that the so-called civil war was in reality a Second American Revolution and in a strict sense, the First. (3) The Beards even hedged the significance of emancipation in the light of the ascendance of this new power. To the progressives, it provided an origin point for understanding exactly how business captured the federal government in the Gilded Age. Many other authors prior to World War II picked up the Beardian view of the war and fleshed out the narrative to include Reconstruction. (4)

    The thesis underwent an intense examination over the course of the 1960s. The Beards emphasized that the real revolution could be found in the economic indicators of the northern economy, yet they did no real economic analysis to support this point. Thomas Cochran and Stanley Engerman famously refuted the notion that there was an economic take-off during the Civil War years. Their economic research concluded that the war actually had the opposite effect on GDP and industrial output, and most likely slowed the pace of industrial growth. Moreover, Robert P. Sharkey and Irwin Unger disassembled the idea that there was a united north during Reconstruction on the greenback issue. Iron producers in Pennsylvania clashed with northeast financial elites over the questions of contraction, resumption of specie payments, and by extension the economic future of the country. (5)

    Yet, it cannot be denied that while the specifics of the Beard thesis have lost their luster, the thrust of their argument--that an industrial North trumped the agricultural South--seems to remain in place. James McPherson's widely read survey of the Civil War, Battle Cry of Freedom, endorsed this view. (6) Richard Franklin Bensel's 1990 Yankee Leviathan remains the central work on how and why the federal government became stronger in the war years, and largely rests on the Beardian view. (7)

    To be sure, Bensel refined and brought up to date the Beardian Civil War with careful attention to the nature of state development in the mid-nineteenth century. Explicitly using the capture perspective and comparing the U.S. to other states, Bensel posited that the Civil War allowed the Republican party to capture the U.S. government and use it as a tool for their developmental policies. Prior to 1860, the stagnation of national authority was a result of southern leaders who kept the central state weak to prevent its interference with the institution of slavery. Bensel avoided the Beards' oversimplifications by adding the wrinkle that the state helped create class. In short, he suggested that the national debt created a new class of financial elites, who then used their power over national policy to cut short the reconstruction of the South, foreshadowing a state that would use its powers to the advantage of capital over that of agriculture and labor. (8)

    There has never been a better time to return to the "vortex" that the Beards described. The most recent and important contributions to the historiography of the Civil War have largely focused their attention away from the political economy of the North. (9) Focusing on monetary legislation, I hope to provide a new perspective about the kind of federal state that the Union won during the Civil War.

    My research tries to understand civil war monetary policy within the context of its origins. With the Beards, greenbacks and national banking are simple products of war. Beard goes a bit farther by arguing that national banking was the pet-project of "business enterprise." (10) Moreover, we are left to believe that these policies were the ultimate victory for Hamiltonian and Whiggish thought, a...

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