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The Department of Everything Else





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In the decade of the 1840s the cry of Manifest Destiny expanded the vision of Americans to continental dimensions. In quick succession came the annexation of Texas in 1845, the resolution of the Oregon boundary dispute with Britain in 1846, and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo concluding the Mexican War in February 1848. In three years the United States enlarged its domain by more than a million square miles, reaching nearly its present size between Canada and Mexico. Widely applauded, this remarkable national aggrandizement also prompted sectional controversy over the extension of slavery.

Much of the contention centered on the organization of the new territories. On the last day of the Thirtieth Congress, March 3, 1849, the eve of Zachary Taylor's presidential inauguration, the Senate and the House of Representatives struggled to find a formula for giving California a civil government. As amendments flowed back and forth between them, senators found time to debate--also with some heat--another bill prompted by the enlargement of the national domain. This was legislation to create a cabinet agency known as the Home Department, or Department of the Interior.

The idea was almost as old as the nation. The First Congress in 1789 considered a department for domestic affairs but finally decided to combine domestic with foreign concerns in the Department of State. The Home Department proposal continued to inspire discussion for more than half a century and enjoyed the support of presidents from James Madison to James K. Polk. [1]

The Mexican War, enormously enlarging the responsibilities of the federal government, gave the proposal new impetus. It found an articulate champion in President Polk's able Secretary of the Treasury, Robert J. Walker of Mississippi. The General Land Office, which oversaw and disposed of the public domain, had been placed in the Department of the Treasury because of the revenues generated from land sales. Secretary Walker foresaw hordes of lobbyists and speculators, drawn by the prospect of large profit in the new territories, swarming upon and corrupting the office. [2]

In his annual report for 1848 Walker pointed out that the duties of the Land Office had little to do with the other functions of his department. The Patent Office in the State Department, the Indian Affairs office in the War Department, and the pension offices in the War and Navy departments were equally remote from the primary responsibilities of those departments, he added. All, he declared, should be brought together in a new "Department of the Interior." [3] A bill to give effect to Walker's proposal passed the House of Representatives on February 15, 1849, [4] and reached the Senate floor on that chaotic final day of the session.

The Senate debate swirled around sectional issues, with southern opponents voicing fears of expanding central government. Senators John C. Calhoun of South Carolina and James M. Mason of Virginia spoke out vigorously in opposition. "There is something ominous in the expression 'the Secretary of the Interior,'" declared Calhoun, eloquent champion of states' rights. "This is a monstrous bill. . . . It will turn over the whole interior affairs of the country to this department, and it is one of the greatest steps that has ever been made in my time to absorb all the remaining powers of the States." [5]

Although aligned with Calhoun on states' rights, Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi represented a state then as much western as southern in orientation and joined Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts in favoring the bill. Webster disclaimed any centralizing tendency in the proposed department: "I see nothing but a plain, practical question. There are duties respecting our foreign relations; and there are duties respecting our internal affairs." Far from posing a sinister threat to sectional interests, he argued, the bill contemplated no more than an administrative reform consolidating internal responsibilities: "That is the whole of it." [6]

The vote, when it finally came on the night of March 3, divided less on sectional than party lines. Democrats, reluctant to award the patronage of a new department to the Whig administration entering office next day, voted nay. Whigs voted yea. When the gavel signaled adjournment at midnight, senators had failed to agree on a government for California; that would come as part of the Compromise of 1850. But they had decided, 31 to 25, to create a Department of the Interior. [7]

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