Friday, September 3, 2010

Foundations of the Homestead Act

The Homestead Act was designed to give away the public lands held by the government to private individuals.  This, it was thought, would provide individuals the opportunity to improve their position in life and stimulate the economy.  Homesteading initiatives had been a source of debate in the halls of Congress for decades prior to the famous 1862 bill.  Congressional leaders, on both sides, agreed that the land was not being effectively utilized; however, they disagreed on how it needed to be distributed. 

Many questions about plans and motives of lawmakers can be asked but one question, often overlooked, is why did Congress get to decide what should or should not be done with these lands?  To understand this and the resulting Homestead Act we must look back to the development of the country and the wording of the Constitution.

by Blake Bell. Historian
Homestead National Monument of America

Administration of public lands may seem like an expected function of our modern government, but in 1787 a central authority allowed to accumulate seemingly limitless amounts of land required constitutional affirmation.[1]. Therefore, written in Article 4, Section 3, Clause 2, of the Constitution, authority was given to the federal government to “dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory or other property belonging to the United States”; this is better known as the Property Clause.  This, combined with the Supremacy Clause, Article 6, Section 2 of the Constitution, which states, “This Constitution, and the laws of the United States… shall be the supreme law of the Land,” withstood every challenge to congressional administration of public land.

Federal control of public lands was perceived by early statesmen as a means to pay off the national debt [2].  They planned to sell public land and use the profits for this purpose.  However, settlers and speculators were pushing further into the frontier taking possession of the land before the government had put it up for sale [3]. The government and their officials were essentially powerless to prevent the unauthorized settlement of land that had yet to be surveyed.  Efforts to put a stop to these practices led many legislators to consider giving the land away.  Provisions to give the land away, supporters argued, would prevent unauthorized occupation of land and, more importantly, alleviate rising social ills like poverty, unemployment, and overcrowding that was stressing industrialized cities.  

So what does all this mean to the Homestead Act?  Well, the Homestead Act was the result of a combination of factors including constitutional law, legal precedent, geography, public demands, economics, and the United States desire to expand.  The history of the Homestead Act does not start in 1862; instead this legislation was the end of a deeper history in which the foundations were laid in the late seventeenth and first half of the eighteenth centuries. 


[1] When Thomas Jefferson purchased the Louisiana Territory he was worried that he would need an amendment to the Constitution in order to authorize the acquisition.   

[2] Paul Gates, History of Public Land Law Development (New York: Arno Press, 1979), 387.

[3] Ibid., 392-93.

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