Washington, D.C., December 7, 1863.
It had been three weeks since President Abraham Lincoln visited the rolling hills of the Gettysburg battlefield and delivered his now famous address, intoning "that government of the people by the people for the people shall not perish from the earth." At the time, no one could have predicted that the war would rage for another year and a half. But that December, few Americans not named Lincoln likely felt the weight of their responsibilities more than the men who had assembled in the U.S. House of Representatives for the opening of the 38th Congress (1863–1865). And few Members of the House seemed to feel the day's pressure more than Schuyler Colfax of Indiana who had just been elected Speaker.
Since the 1st Congress in 1789, new Speakers had always addressed their assembled colleagues after winning election. Their remarks were often simple and appreciative, and on December 7th Speaker Colfax followed tradition, saying he was humbled by the responsibility. But as he outlined the Herculean task awaiting the 38th Congress, his brief, spirited speech carried a message that no other Speaker had ever had to deliver. "Today will be marked in American history as the opening of a Congress destined to face and settle the most important questions of the century," Colfax declared, "and during whose existence the rebellion, which has passed its culmination, will, beyond all question, thanks to our Army and Navy and Administration, die a deserved death."
Early on, the legislative agenda of the 38th Congress was nearly overshadowed by the unprecedented and far-reaching measures passed during the previous session. Freed by the departure of obstructionist Southern Members, the 37th Congress (1861–1863) and its Republican majority helped manage the war effort and passed the Homestead Act, spurring western settlement; the Land Grant College Act, introducing a public component to higher education; and the Pacific Railroad Act, providing the groundwork for a transcontinental railroad.
The 37th Congress had accomplished so much that some observers wondered whether there was anything left for the 38th Congress to do. But Horace Greeley'sNew York Tribune dismissed such talk. "This Congress has none the less a work of its own," the Tribune declared. "The settlement of the country, the recognition of repentant States, the establishment of a national policy of Freedom, the punishment of conquered Rebellion are all to be considered" in the new session.
Ultimately, the 38th Congress registered a number of legislative achievements. Foremost was the passage of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolishing slavery, which cleared the raucous House Chamber by a vote of 119 to 56 on January 31, 1865, before being sent to the states. The 38th Congress also created the Freedmen's Bureau to aid emancipated slaves and war refugees, and admitted Nevada into the Union as a state.
Later Congresses would piece the country back together, but from the Speaker's rostrum on Opening Day in early December 1863, Colfax warned fellow Representatives about the scale of their unfinished business, reminding them that the world would be watching as "interested spectators of your acts in this greater than Roman forum."
Sources: New York Daily Tribune, December 8, 1863; New York Times, December 7, 1863; New York Daily Tribune, February 1, 1865; Congressional Globe, 38th Cong., 1st sess. (7 December 1863): 6-7; House Journal, 38th Cong., 2nd sess. (31 January 1865);Leonard P. Curry, Blue Print for Modern America: Nonmilitary Legislation of the First Civil War Congress (Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 1968); Stephen W. Stathis, Landmark Legislation, 1774-2002: Major Acts and Treaties (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2003).