One of the most productive Congresses in U.S. history, surprisingly, was during the great crisis of the Civil War. Preoccupied as they were with war, including the vast $2 million-per-day cost, members of Congress still managed have a vision for the future.
On the 150th anniversary of the 1862 session, much of that legacy remains with us. In particular, the public lands troika shaped the future of this country: the Homestead Act (May 20), Pacific Railroad Act (July 1) and the Morrill Land-Grant College Act (July 2).
The first enabled people of small means to own 160 acres after five years.
The second built the transcontinental railroad, linking the West to the rest of the nation.
The third created the world's best system of public colleges and universities for people of modest means. Previously most Americans had no access to higher education.
All of this came after the Battle of Shiloh, where 20,000 men on both sides were killed or wounded. Historian James McPherson has described what that carnage meant: "Shiloh launched the country onto the flood tide of total war."
But it also launched the nation into a new role for government, creating a postwar vision of what the country could become. As McPherson notes, government aid in 1862 came to be seen as an "investment in national unity and economic growth that would benefit all groups in society."
Another historian, Larry Curry, has called the work of that Congress a "blueprint for modern America."
Despite cries of mounting deficits and the vagaries of major armed conflict, members of Congress made a commitment to future generations. And, make no mistake, this agenda was Congress-led. President Abraham Lincoln and his Cabinet were preoccupied with war and what to do about slavery.
This Congress, Curry writes, was a "remarkably creative and energetic body."
That should have lessons for us today as our lawmakers wring their hands over the problems of the present, including deficits, without preparing the country for future prosperity.
The current Congress can't even seem to reach common ground on the basics, such as a multiyear farm bill or transportation bill -- much less the networks and education of the future.
The lessons of 1862, in particular, should apply to a vision for higher education. In California and across the nation, the great land-grant colleges and universities that came out of that 1862 legislation are struggling in an era of cuts. It took years to see the results, but with steadfast commitment they did come.
The land-grant colleges aptly became known as "Democracy's Colleges" or the "People's Colleges."
California took up the land-grant offer in 1864 and the University of California was born -- at Berkeley -- in 1868. Later, the University Farm would become UC Davis. The Citrus Experiment Station would become UC Riverside.
The Southern states, when they rejoined the Union, also took up the offer. Today, more than 100 land-grant universities serve the nation -- in every state.
The public lands troika of laws were profoundly democratic in their aims, making property, travel, commerce and higher education available broadly to Americans at a time when more than half the nation was occupied in farming.
We need to rekindle that sense of democratic opportunity, particularly in higher education, the engine of upward mobility in American society.
Lincoln said, "The land-grant university system is being built on behalf of the people, who have invested in these public universities their hopes, their support and their confidence."
The United States has a wealth of creativity, ingenuity and energy that can be tapped, even in the deepest of crises. That's the 150-year lesson of 1862.