Saturday, July 19, 2008

Why the Homestead Act?

Why did the 37th United States Congress pass the Homestead Act which was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on May 20, 1862?

Was it because of Manifest Destiny? Manifest Destiny was a 19th century concept concerning U. S. territorial expansion that promoted the idea that it was the destiny of the United States to control North America from Coast to Coast. It was the belief it was the destiny of the United States to spread democracy, “America” culture, and the American economy over all of North America. Some believed that expansion into "uncivilized" regions would spread progress and democracy. It was convenient for all to think that they had the divine right to acquire and dominate because they had the proper economic system and the most developed culture and belonged to the most advanced race. To some people in the 19th century it was more than “destiny,” it was a “pre-ordained by Providence” for America to expand Coast to Coast.

Was the Homestead Act passed to promote big business and aid American industrial expansion? As a result of the Mexican War [1846-1848] what is now California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas, and a good portion of what is now Colorado became United States territory. To tie the existing States together with this new western territory is was deemed essential to build a transcontinental railroad. But this would mean building a railroad across the Great Plains which had been designated “Permanent Indian Territory” by the Indian Removal Act of 1830. To remedy this the Kansas-Nebraska Act was created in 1854 opening up most of the Great Plains for settlement and leaving just Oklahoma as “Permanent Indian Territory” [see the Homestead Congress blog from March 22, 2008]. The Act creating the Transcontinental Railroad was signed into law on July 1, 1862, just a few weeks after the Homestead Act was signed by President Lincoln. A railroad across the Great Plains needed customers. Was the Homestead Act created to speed up settlement of the Great Plains so the railroad would have customers? The newly expanding industries of America needed to produce and sell more. Settlement on the Great Plains would create new markets for American Industry. Was the Homestead Act created to aid American industrial expansion? Are Manifest Destiny and Industrial Expansion linked?

Was the Homestead Act designed to meet the Jeffersonian ideal of a nation of yeoman farmers? Thomas Jefferson believed the yeoman farmer best exemplified virtue and independence from corrupting city influences. He opposed industrialization. Jefferson specifically believed "Those who labor in the earth... are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people." He believed government policy should be for the benefit of the farmer. He wanted a nation of yeoman farmers.

Was the Homestead Act passed for a higher ideal—an ideal expressed in the Declaration of Independence, that all men had the right to pursue happiness? It was long presumed Jefferson's phrase meant just as it was described by U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Stephen Johnson Field in 1884: “Among these inalienable rights, as proclaimed in that great document, is the right of men to pursue their happiness, by which is meant the right to pursue any lawful business or vocation, in any manner not inconsistent with the equal rights of others, which may increase their prosperity or develop their faculties, so as to give to them their highest enjoyment.”

These Presidents of the United States believe the Homestead Act was created to facilitate this higher ideal.

Harry S. Truman, June 4, 1948: “The newcomers quickly learned their way about and soon felt at home. The Homestead Act of 1862 provided them, as well as many other pioneers, with an opportunity ….”

Lyndon B. Johnson, August 26, 1965: “Like the lawmakers in our past who created the Homestead Act….we say that it is right and that it is just, and that it is a function of government, and that we are going to carry out that responsibility to help our people get back on their feet and share once again in the blessings of America life.”

Ronald Reagan, August 1, 1983: “This promise was made real, thanks to the hard work, the dedication, and commitment….of the America people….to law’s that created opportunity; for example, historic legislation like the Homestead Act….”

George H. W. Bush, November 28, 1990: “Abraham Lincoln's Homestead Act empowered people; it freed people from the burden of poverty. It freed them to control their own destinies, to create their own opportunities, and to live the vision of the American Dream.”

George W. Bush, January 20, 2005: “In America's ideal of freedom, citizens find the dignity and security of economic independence instead of laboring on the edge of subsistence. This is the broader definition of liberty that motivated the Homestead Act, the Social Security Act, and the GI Bill of Rights.”

Abraham Lincoln, July 4, 1861: “This is essentially a People's contest. On the side of the Union, it is a struggle for maintaining in the world, that form, and substance of government, whose leading object is, to elevate the condition of men---to lift artificial weights from all shoulders---to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all---to afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life. Yielding to partial, and temporary departures, from necessity, this is the leading object of the government for whose existence we contend.”

What do you think?

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