Friday, April 23, 2010

An open door to the world: Homestead Immigration

Immigration in the United States has had a rich historical tradition that goes back to the first settlements in the new world. The Homestead Act of 1862 provided an open door to the rest of the world to come to the United States and participate in the American Dream. Many know that immigration was dramatically affected by the Homestead Act, but many do not know why. It may seem obvious that groups of people were coming to the United States to try and claim the free land being offered by the government, but the story is much deeper than that, and the reasons were as varied as there were immigrants. There are many themes that can be addressed, but in this article the focus will remain on issues abroad.
Nineteenth century Europe was suffering from overcrowded urban populations, political unrest, and social discontent. The industrial revolution had engulfed Western Europe creating undesirable living and working conditions in urban areas, and land was still controlled by the elite classes, making a dire situation insufferable. The feudal veil that had kept the peasantry of Eastern Europe in perpetual serfdom was lifted; however, opportunity for progress remained bleak. Populations across the continent were suffering from centuries of war and tyrannical regimes.

Russia was on the eve of Revolution, Italy was engrossed in a bitter civil war, Eastern European countries, like Bulgaria, were being created from war and conquest. The continent was in a constant state of flux. Political ideology was as unstable and chaotic as the power shifts. Revolution infected the continent as a new social awareness washed over the masses. The peasantry pushed for more social, political, and economic equality, while the nobility and elites sought to maintain their monopoly in these areas.

This was the climate many European populations had to endure. However; there was a nation across the Atlantic that was founded on principles of freedom, liberty, and justice. The United States had declared that immigrants who were willing to become citizens could come and take advantage of the newest land law; The Homestead Act. This provided immigrants the opportunity to receive 160 acres of their own land if they were to successfully make the required improvements. Emma Lazarus’s words, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” from her sonnet The New Colossus, would have undoubtedly touched a chord with Europe’s impoverished masses seeking an opportunity at a better life.

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